For many years, after first spotting the picture of the monks on the cover of How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, I was fascinated with the whimsical notion of dogs in church, accompanied by their monastic handlers. This, to me, had all the beloved idiosyncracy of a British murder mystery set in a quaint but eccentric small town. My idea of wonderful. That the monks in question seemed to know dogs, really know dogs was intriguing to me. That they apparantly walked their walk, all day long, incorporating their dogs into all aspects of a community, in this case, a religious community, was even more intriguing. That the dogs in question were German Shepherds was, for me, the icing on the cake. I had always loved them even though it would not be until many years later that I would first own one. I wonder, in retrospect, how much those subliminal impressions influenced and informed my later decisions.
Oddly, since I ran across the books when I was living out west, the Monastery was in upstate New York state, where I had grown up. I kept thinking, maybe some day... when I’m home ... I’ll see how far away they are and go visit. But, as vague fancies do, this one went to the back of the burner, where it stayed for many years, obliviously on low simmer, amidst the strangely divergent turns and twists of my life. As my 50th birthday approached, and the world of dog had once again come to the forefront of my life, this vague fancy resurfaced. I wondered if the monastery even allowed visitors. I went to their websites, and and while amused by the irony of a monastery with a website, was pleased to see that the answer to the visitor question was yes. Allowing my whimsy free flight, I picked up the phone, and the adventure was born.
- If you have ever entertained any notions of visiting – go.
- If you are frazzled and can’t remember quite why you are doing what you are doing – go.
- If you would like to spend time in exquisite beauty tempered with humor, laughter, wit and insight – go.
- If you would like to stretch your soul and give it new wings – go.
- If you would like a chance to just step back and look at the world through another prism – go.
- if you would like the opportunity to be in a whole community where dog is honored – go.
Live your dreams now, you never know what tomorrow will bring.
The Monastery of New Skete sits about an hour and a half northeast of Albany, New York in the lush rolling agricultural country of Washington County just outside the picturesque village of Cambridge. New Skete itself sits on top of a mountain. Walking dogs there, which I did a fair amount of, involves going down, and then, of course, coming back up, steeply. Fortunately, the bear who crossed the road ahead of me, did so while I was in the car, not with the dogs. While New Skete is a community dedicated to the art and science of living with dog, it is also a liturgical community of the Eastern Orthodox faith. As my mother is Ukrainian, with her earliest traditions from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, this was also for me, (unbeknownst to me when I went) a return to my cultural and spiritual roots.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and was extremely nervous about committing some heinous faux pas. I’m not particularly reverant. Substantially cynical. And more likely to see the humor in a situation than its solemnity. I figured I’d have to mind my P’s and Q’s and conduct myself in a straightlaced manner that would be more in accordance with my mother’s childhood admonishments than my own itinerant nature. I needn’t have worried, my first dinner at the Monastery was conducted in snort milk through your nose hilarity. So much for stereotypes. The rest of my time there continued much in the same vein juxtaposed with moments of sublime church beauty the likes of which I have rarely known.
The Monks – Brothers Elias, Peter, John, David, Christopher, Marc, Ambrose, Luke and Stavros are an extremely bright, witty, insightful, and powerful clan of men who have chosen to live in community and dedicate their lives to living their faith on a daily basis. Picture a Tibetan monastery in times of yore. All services are conducted in song, very roughly put, like Gregorian chants, but sung in English. Part of the community’s commitment to the public is in bridging the gap between their ancient traditions and the modern world, so that while the chants are organized musically in traditional eastern cadences and tones, most of the words are in English to make the body of the sentiment understandable during the services. For me, it was like being given an insight into a hidden world.
The beauty of the Monks’ music is part and parcel of what infuses their work with the dogs. Taken by itself it is like the haunting beauty of a loon’s call at dusk. It cuts through to the core of your soul and takes no prisoners. It demolishes pretence and leaves humility and joy in its wake. (Visitors are in no way obligated to attend any services, I merely chose to do so, not having any idea what would unfold.) What makes it doubly haunting is that in a very, short time, the Monks become real, textured people with a twinkle in their eye, or a pithy comment ranging from obscure theology to modern events. Nor is their wit and wisdom something they put on and take off with their robes (which were for the time I was there were only worn during services.) Who they are, is what they are all day long. Kindly, dedicated, very human and very real. So when you see your friends don their robes, smile and greet friends and parisioners, and then burst forth into an a cappella song that truly, as cliched as it sounds, sounds like angels, as the lights come up in the church and everything glows golden yellow, the sheer intimacy of the moment they are sharing with you, knocks you to your knees. You receive the gift of being taken into someone else’s spirituality for a moment, whether it is even remotely your faith or not. This has nothing to do with outreach or conversion, it is about being allowed a window, an intimate window on a private, magical world that is clearly evident on the Monk’s faces as they sing.....
....And then you come out, and it’s time for meals...and Dogs....! Dogs are implicit and explicit in the community. Implicit in the founding corporate papers of the community and in the spiritual teachings of the eastern orthodox church which does not make the more restrictive distinctions between man and animal that have evolved in more western judeo-christian traditions, and in this particular community’s spiritual credo. The Monks of New Skete feel they are merely following in a long line of tradition of monks and the natural world. As they say in How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend,
Traditionally, monks have had a profound reverance for nature and the animal world because they manifested something essential about the mystery of God. This insight came from working intimately with nature, caring for it and learning its secrets, not just reading about it. Genuine monastic living means living a life without division, looking for God in the soil of each and every moment of daily life, not merely when praying and worshiping. Living in close association with our dogs helps us avoid a temptations that is always present in contemplative life – the temptation to live narcissistically in the dreamy world of ideas. (P. 10, Revised Edition, 2002).
The dogs are explicit in the many signs of them on the property from the kennels, the gift shop, and dogs in training, to Br. Luke bicycling down the mountain with two shepherds galloping alongside, to Chris’s dog lying on the floor nearby during dinner, to a petite nun from the sister community (the Nuns of New Skete) with a giant shepherd strolling at her side, to the pups being socialized up and down the stairs to the chapel.
The Monks have cut back substantially on their breeding program for the time being. There were just six puppies when I was there, all of whom I got a chance to handle and socialize. They have lost a number of their ranks (human) through death, and leading a monastic life of this ilk does not seem to be super high on a lot of folks most wanted career. The Monks who are left are getting older. Two of them have health issues, so quite exactly what the future holds is unclear. How they will handle their commitment to the world of dog as the community ages has been very much a subject of discussion for the community this year.
Amongst the many treasures of the community both the intangible ones of what it has meant to live in a religious community shared with dog for their whole adult lives and the tangible ones of the dogs, the books, and the videos is a collection of years of videos of movement analysis of their puppy litters, many of which were filmed in conjunction with a well known expert in the German Shepherd world, Helen (Scootie) Sherlock, that I hope they will consider preserving for all of our education. Not only were the pups filmed using traditional movement protocols, moving the dogs straight out, back, and side to side, they also walked them up and down hills, up and down stairs, and even invented a plexiglass bridge they put the pups on and filmed from underneath. As a movement addict, needless to say I have begged for a chance to review these tapes.
The proscribed three days was far too short, and yet it was time to let them rekindle their energy in private, and for me to try and absorb the extraordinary experiences I had been privileged to share. Another visitor, quoting a French writer, said that the monks were “the lungs of humanity”, that their songs, like Tibetan bells and other sacred symbols, secular and religious, hold a vision of peace, of divinity within humanity for all humanity. It made me believe that the work we do, sometimes so painstaking, often frustrating, of easing the communication foibles between people and dogs, including ourselves and our critters, is part and parcel of the Monks’ songs, and a larger vision of what the world could be like.
Copyright 2004 Ozuna
If you would like to visit the Monks, be patient, they currently have only one telephone line to the top of the mountain, which services their mail order business, their computers, and their phones. Attempts to incorporate cell phones, or satellite have so far been stymied by the mountain. You will get through and they will get back to you. You can find out more about them at http://www.newsketemonks.com/dogs_archive.htm