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Artist's Writings

"Monasticism Through the Camera's Lens: One Convert's Pilgrimage"

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Since 1978, Michael McClellan has been focusing his cameras on the monks and monasteries of the Eastern and Oriental (Monophysite) Orthodox Churches throughout the United States, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. It is a journey that has brought him into contact with simple monks, holy hermits, and Patriarchs and taken him to Orthodoxy's holiest places in an effort to document through photography the state of eastern Christian monasticism at the end of the second millennium. ??

This journey, however, started not in the East, but in America, in the South, in a small town in central Kentucky. It was here, as a teenage Southern Baptist growing up in a predominantly Roman Catholic town, that his journey began. ??

During these formative years, McClellan lived a few miles from Gethsemane Monastery, home to Fr. Thomas Merton and hundreds of other Trappist monks over the past century and a half. Although born into a Southern Baptist family, he was attracted to Gethsemane and went there often on Sunday afternoons to listen to the services and to revel spiritually in the soft Gregorian chants for which the monks are so famous. ??

The very simplicity of the church itself was also an attraction: the scarceness of its decorations, the simple stall wherein each monk stood quietly in his plain white robe and black belt, and the simple wood furnishings. Because Trappist is a strict Cistercian monastery, McClellan was never able to meet one of those fathers or to get to know one, but a desire was born to learn more about their way of life, a life of denial freely chosen. ??

Soon after beginning graduate studies in photojournalism at Syracuse University in upstate New York, McClellan began work on a project to which he would dedicate himself for many years to come. As he recalls, "I began photographing a small Russian church near my dormitory that was being painted by two fathers from the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York. I encountered them quite by chance -- or perhaps not by chance. These two Russian Orthodox monks were painting the frescoes in this little church. One of them, Fr. Cyprian, was an old Russian and the other, Fr. Alexis, was a young Australian. Only Fr. Alexis spoke English and we became friends quickly. He invited me to come and visit their monastery at Jordanville. Although the monastery was less than two hours away from Syracuse by car, it was like a step back into time into another land, a land known as "Holy Russia," a land I thought no longer existed. ??

"That visit turned out to be the first of dozens of visits to the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Monastery, the first of many eastern Christian monasteries I was to visit over the ensuing years. Through my initial interest in photographing Orthodox monasticism, I converted to Orthodoxy and realized quickly that I was in a position to share the spiritual riches of Orthodoxy with many other people of all faiths through my work in photography and writing. ??

"My initial fascination with monasticism, which began in the green hills of Kentucky, eventually led me on a pilgrimage of monasteries and holy places belonging to the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, and I hope and pray that before it finishes it will take me to Africa, Serbia, and the Caucasus." ??

Obviously, an Orthodox monastery with its beautiful, old frescoes, the bearded, black-robed fathers, the exotic architecture, and other "unworldly aspects" would be a treat for any photographer. Yet, there is much more of interest to McClellan than just these visual qualities. For him, there were many questions to be explored and many answers to be shared with others. ??

As he put it, "What is it about monasticism that is so attractive? What is about self-denial, asceticism, poverty, chastity, obedience, prayer, and worship, that has pulled at the hearts and souls of men and women in the Christian world for almost 2000 years? Why is monasticism in one form or another a factor in virtually every major religion of the world and why has it been so since the most ancient of times? What is it about monasticism that makes it seem to be a trait of human character, an 'ideal' that people everywhere in all times have wanted to obtain and why does the world resist it so? These are all questions I have struggled with myself and they are questions to which I still have not found answers. Yet, the most troubling and perplexing question of all for many of us -- not least for myself -- is why is monasticism attractive to me? Why do I feel drawn to it? Why does monasticism seem to be such a 'temptation' for me? ??

"To get at these answers, I decided to visit as many monasteries as I could, to become acquainted with as many monks as possible, to read all I could on the subject, and to attempt to enter into it as much as I could while still maintaining a career and an active life in the 'real world.' ??

"The answer, however, was quick in coming. Monks, you see, are the ones who live in the real world. Those of us on the outside are living in an artificial world, one created by man with all his contrivances, inconveniences, and madnesses. In becoming a monk, one must first try to put aside all the material cares, to withdraw into poverty, for it is only in poverty freely chosen that man can be truly free. As Thomas Merton once said, 'it was only in the four walls of the monastery that I could be free.'" ??

Now working as a Foreign Service Officer stationed at the American Embassy in Moscow, McClellan has been blessed with a career that permits foreign travel from time to time. However, a lot of travel is still required to complete the project and the costs are high for extensively documenting monasteries in far-flung reaches of the earth. There are still monasteries in Turkey, Syria, Georgia, Armenia, Ethiopia, and the Balkans that need to be covered and at least one more visit to Mount Athos will be required to document the hermetic life of that holy place. In addition, the costs of materials, equipment, and processing are high, all of which combine to make this an expensive undertaking. Up to now, though, McClellan has funded all the work himself but outside assistance will be needed if the project is to be completed by the end of this century. ??

His goal now is for the project to finance itself through sales of individual prints. Priced at $150 per print, 30 per cent of all sales will go to the monastery that is the subject of the sold photo, and the rest will go to support the project. McClellan prints and mounts all images personally, and they are prepared according to the highest standards of archival permanence. Each print is approximately 11" x 14", mounted on 16" x 20" archival boards, and is signed and ready for framing. ??

Unlike other "art prints" that people buy to decorate their homes and offices, these images convey a special message. According to McClellan, "The Church has always recognized the value of images in human life, both to lead people to sanctity and to lead them to perdition. Photographs, like paintings, can lead people to contemplate holiness and spiritual subjects or they can lead people to debauchery and sin. Photos of holy places, photos of monastics, and photos of the monastic way of life, can all help to lead a person to contemplation of spiritual things and can take them to see places and meet people they may never have a chance to encounter on their own. ??

"By owning these photos, one also has the satisfaction of knowing that support has been given to monks and monasteries, to support their way of life and to preserve and restore their holy places. In that sense, I hope and pray that my photos will prove to be a double blessing to everyone who owns and sees them." ??

When the project is completed, McClellan hopes to publish it as a book. Unlike other photography books, however, the images in this book will be "illustrated" with words -- the words of the ancient desert fathers. These ancient words, coupled with modern images, will attempt to tell of the special attractions of eastern Christian monasticism and the timeless traditions, the unbroken spirituality, that is followed by these fathers seeking oneness with God. Explanatory text is also in progress, but that will be minimized in favor of letting the fathers -- both old and new -- speak to us through their words, their actions, and their very existence. ??

In the meantime, McClellan has had two exhibits of these photos in Egypt and Washington, both of which were about Coptic monasticism in the Egyptian desert. During Lent in 1992, the Washington National Cathedral hosted an exhibit which was opened by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of Alexandria and the See of Saint Mark. More exhibits are being planned for the next year in Atlanta and Moscow, Russia. McClellan has also published several articles on this theme. ??

Given the strong visual traditions that are inherent in Orthodoxy, it seems only natural that photography would be such a strong medium for communicating Orthodoxy's spirituality to a modern world that is filled with visual images. However, McClellan believes the images must first be true to the essence of Orthodoxy and only secondly should they cater to photographic tastes. It is their message that is the most important. ??

"I embarked on this pilgrimage to learn more about this way of life, and about what it can teach me in my own daily life," said McClellan. "Yet the message I heard is one that should be heard by everyone and I chose to undertake the task of sharing it with others. Photography and text seemed the natural medium for this work as words and images have been used for 2000 years in the Eastern Churches to spread the Christian message. In that sense, I see photography as an extension of the ancient art of icon painting and I have attempted to use it in the same manner and with the same fidelity to spiritual truth as the painters of old. ??

"Monasticism is first and foremost about monks -- real men and women who have chosen a particular lifestyle and are doing their human best to fulfill its requirements with divine help. I have chosen to concentrate my work on them, the people, and not on the buildings as other photographers have done. Monasteries do not dominate the work. They are simply places where monks live, work, worship, and die. Without monks, there can be no monasteries. Without monasteries, there can and will be monks. Destroy the monk and you destroy the monastery -- even if it continues to stand as a museum. Destroy the monastery, and the monk simply moves on, making his new home a monastery. ??

"Everywhere I have gone, whatever the language, whatever the landscape, whatever the habits, I found that monks were the same. As I read the words of the ancient desert fathers, the lives of saints, and the monastic histories, I realized over and over that the same things are happening today, that the same Spirit is moving among us, that God is still calling a select few to lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I want to tell their story to a world that needs desperately to learn from their example. That is all."