This Traverse Classic was first featured in the December 2001 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan Magazine and updated online January 2024.
Three men in hooded black robes sweep wordlessly across the kitchen, balancing steaming loaf pans on outstretched arms. Occasionally, glass clinks nearby as two more men work together by an old black cook stove, funneling a fruity mixture into jelly jars with the focused concentration of scientists.
Father Ambrose, a slight man with large eyes and a jet-black beard, stirs a pail of dough. With each stroke of his spoon, he sends the scent of rum and port wine through the spacious room. Without speaking, he points a hand or motions with his head to direct this busy crew. It’s Christmastime, and there are orders to be filled.
Ora et labora—work and prayer—is the guiding principle here at Holy Transfiguration Skete, Society of St. John, a small Catholic monastery on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. As always, talking is kept to a minimum in the kitchen of the Jampot, the weathered bakery where the monks make cakes and preserves to sell to support the monastery.
On this blustery November day, as they prepare jams from a wild harvest of thimbleberry, dandelion flowers, chokecherry and bilberry, the monks are practicing a 1,500-year-old formula for life. And life by the monastic rule of St. Benedict, which they follow, means a constant struggle for balance among elements that seem at odds: prayer and worship versus the running of a busy business; hospitality versus silence; business success versus a vow of poverty.
No one knows the struggle between these extremes better than Father Basil, one of the two men who founded the Holy Transfiguration 18 years ago. The 54-year-old monk writes and publishes the monastery’s regular newsletter on a computer, yet is not allowed to read the news, watch TV or search the Internet. He strives to follow the Biblical command “pray without ceasing,” but works a busy retail counter from 9 to 5 each May through October.
And even though the monastic life demands silence, it also requires hospitality, at which Father Basil excels. He likes it best when the Jampot is so crowded that it takes on the air of a party. Some customers stop by just to hear his stories; indeed, the man with the craggy beard and smiling eyes loves nothing better than spinning a yarn about an ancient-day saint. But when he grabs a can of cooking spray to coat the 50 muffin pans lining the table, his eyes take on a faraway look. Silently, he repeats to himself an ancient mantra the monks call the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
“No matter what you’re doing,” Father Basil says, “this prayer should be going on. It’s not so much a matter of saying the words but having a disposition and openness to God and the divine.”
Even on the best day, life as a monk on the Keweenaw means a difficult balancing act. Yet the monastic dream of founders Father Basil and Father Nicholas moves forward, in ways seen and unseen, toward the eventual vision of two very different monks who remain bound by an unwavering commitment and a shared vision for the role that prayer—and art—can play in changing the world.
The Holy Transfiguration Skete, Society of St. John
The Holy Transfiguration Skete was founded in 1983 along a stretch of Lake Superior’s Great Sand Bay in a complex of small buildings that once housed a resort. “Must have meant ‘last resort,’” Father Basil jokes.
A one-time schoolhouse without insulation became the worship and living area, with the kitchen doubling as a chapel. The monks transformed a former diner across the street into the Jampot.
Today, the busy bakery offers a rare entry into the mysterious world of a monk for the several thousand tourists who drop by each summer. But even as customers intermingle with the peaceful men in their hooded robes, few have a real sense of how they live their lives behind the “cloistered area” sign across the street, or what it took to create the Holy Transfiguration out of the severe landscape of the Lake Superior coastline.
It was winter, when life here is silent and harsh, that convinced two 30-something men from Detroit’s inner city that they had found the perfect base for monastic life. Father Basil, having studied history at the University of Michigan, knew that historically monasteries have thrived in places of isolation—deserts, mountaintops, rocky cliffs. The Keweenaw and its typical 300 inches of snowfall fit the bill.
The two men had met briefly during their college years, but the monastic vision grew years later when they met up by chance at an inner-city arts center. Father Nicholas, a long-time orchestra conductor, had founded the Rosa Parks Arts Center and for six years had been working to elevate the lives of inner-city kids through music, drama and art. He was increasingly frustrated by the politics of convincing others of the value of the work and felt he was simply chipping away at social problems that needed solving at their root. Meanwhile, though he was raised Methodist, the African-American activist started having dreams calling him to become a Catholic priest.
“I was coming to the decision that the best thing you could do for some people is pray for them,” Father Nicholas says. “It’s something people have done for a long time, especially when society seems to be going in a direction you can’t change. You can picket, sit in, create soup kitchens, feed the poor. You can do a lot of things. Sometimes the best thing you can do is pray.”
Father Nicholas started taking classes at a nearby seminary, but the two men decided to take the plunge and live as monks (a choice that does not require ordination) in a monastery of their own.
The monks were offered a building in Detroit but turned it down, in part because monasteries have thrived historically in places more remote. And they hoped remoteness could serve other purposes filled by the monasteries of old—to preserve culture and offer a place of sanctuary in case of a major world crisis.
With little more than inspiration and an old pick-up (one they’d eventually have to sell to buy food), they headed North to pray in their new home without insulation or running water. Although Father Basil was raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he knew little about roughing it. His experience as a bank teller and restaurant manager would eventually come to use, but what was needed in those early days was firewood, water and a good sense of humor. “We told people, ‘Sure we have running water,’” Father Basil says. “Just as fast as we can run with it.”
The first neighbor they met didn’t offer much encouragement, saying, “I’ll see you guys in spring—if you’re still alive.” Others were more supportive, bringing them wood, food and advice for survival—like getting a dog, so it would wake them when the stove went out.
The beauty of the lake brought unexpected consolation and fit well with the monks’ vision of elevating lives through the arts—a continuation of the fathers’ inner-city work. They wanted their monastery to be a haven for beauty and offer spiritually-oriented concerts and artists’ retreats.
One winter night, the two monks woke to find northern lights streaming down above a setting moon. They walked, mesmerized, far out onto the ice to the ridge where waves were nearly splashing at their feet. They didn’t turn back until their dog started biting at their heels.
The next morning they woke to find the ice gone and water pounding the shore, showing how perilous their walk had been. It was one of many double-edged miracles that have come to characterize life as a monk on the Keweenaw.
“A local priest once asked if we’d come for penitential reasons,” Father Basil says. “I said, ‘We did come looking for purgatory. But we found paradise as well.’”
Life as a Monk
The November wind gusts off a moody Lake Superior as the monks head to a dressing room to prepare for worship. From among the elegant robes of purple, red and gold stored in the closet for special services, they each select a hooded black robe with a white satin bib.
As hegumen, or spiritual leader, Father Nicholas sits in the throne-like seat in the center of the chapel. Father Ambrose, a 27-year-old monk who joined the order after working in the Jampot, takes a seat alongside Father Basil next to empty chairs that hold stacks of worship books and boxes of Kleenex. With them today is a guest. Dan Dudzinski, a 32-year-old accountant from suburban Detroit has decided to become a monk and is visiting monasteries to select a home. As the monks pull the hoods over their heads and sit in silence, Dan follows suit—he pulls up his sweatshirt hood and bows in prayer. In the silence, the woodstove spits and sizzles.
The tinkling of wind chimes—the only musical accompaniment—seems to signal the start of the service. Father Nicholas stands first and in his deep baritone intones: “Blessed is God at all times, both now and forever.”
On this night, they pray for dozens of people and causes: for the Pope, their bishops, all civil authorities, every city and country, favorable weather, peace, those who support their monastery, safety, and salvation—for their own souls and those of everyone in the world. They sing in chanting cadence: “Protect us, save us, have mercy on us and preserve us, oh God, by your grace.”
By walling themselves off from the world, monks don’t believe they are running away, but instead shutting out distractions so they can do work such as this. It’s a difficult concept to explain, Father Basil says. But to illustrate it, he recalls Thomas Merton, the writer, monk and social activist who was questioned by a visitor on the validity of monastic living versus taking more worldly action. “Merton believed in the power of prayer,” Father Basil says. “He felt he could have his greatest impact in the silent monastery praying, and we very much feel that.”
In addition to a rigorous daily ritual of worship and prayer, the brothers’ conversion several years ago from the Roman Catholic to the Byzantine Ukrainian Catholic church moved them toward their goal of promoting the arts as a way toward God.
The Byzantine tradition of worship is one rich in aesthetic beauty and ritual, characterized by holding onto ancient traditions of the church developed around the fourth century. In this tradition, ornate artwork, icons and music help flood the senses and mirror the spiritual grandeur of God.
“The church has always taken her trust and mysteries and enshrined them in beauty to be more appealing to us, so we might remember them better,” Father Basil says. “We believe the real purpose of human artistry is to give glory to God and communicate His strength, beauty, power and love to us.”
In worship this day, the three monks and Dan work through the elaborate liturgy, which is mostly sung or chanted. Father Nicholas spreads incense through the room, wafting smoke first toward the various images of saints that line the chapel walls, then toward Father Basil, Dan and Father Ambrose. The four then raise their hands and chant in unison, “Let my prayers rise like incense before you.” The movements are well practiced, says Father Nicholas, who tells the monks that every move—how they sit, how they bow—is all art. He is even ordering opera videos for the brothers to study over the winter to help train their voices.
While the rules of the church govern the worship style, the rule of Benedict dictates life outside the chapel. The saint’s “little rule for beginners” lays down guiding behaviors, like how monks should greet guests and how much wine they can serve at dinner. The common sense inherent in the rule, the monks say, keeps their community strong—evidenced in their frequent laughter and obvious concern for one another.
Father Basil, the most health conscious of the group, is the designated cook on fasting days, and this night he prepares a potato and leek soup with hearty bread—no butter. The ban on meat and dairy products for certain meals promotes solidarity with the world’s poor; other meals take on a more festive air. Saturday night’s dinner, for example—on the rare night each week talking is allowed during a meal—will include a rich chicken dish followed by Russian crème with Grand Marnier sauce.
The men eat their soup in silence as they listen to a taped lecture—this one on some intricacies of Benedict’s rule. When Father Nicholas rings a gold bell by his plate, talking is allowed. The mood turns jovial over the shared task of washing dishes in the kitchen.
Father Nicholas is sitting this chore out, huddling by the fire with a cup of tea as he tries to recover from a cold he can’t shake. But when he talks of the day he was consecrated in the Byzantine church and was allowed to pick a new name, his formal, elegant bearing gives way to a childlike grin. After all, he chose the name of the saint that inspired the legend of Santa Claus.
“I like Nicholas, and I like to give,” Father Nicholas says, adding, “Sometimes to the other brothers’ chagrin.” While they give away any excess to the poor, their Jampot earnings also provide for their own living basics and ministry expenses.
“There are times I’m in a grocery store and see an old lady finagling to get more out of her food stamps,” he says. “We pick up her bill. It’s something Nicholas would have done.”
The monastery of late has been thriving financially, making giving especially rewarding. Over the years, the original 650-square-foot living area has grown to about 5,000 square feet and includes a new recital hall. Another 4,500-square foot chapel and dormitory is slated for construction this spring. They’ve added both a new kitchen and warehouse to the Jampot. And still, Father Nicholas says, “we’re able to give away more than we could when we were in Detroit working three jobs.”
But as the firelight glows on his face, his eyebrows furrow and he looks especially tired. As he and Father Basil move well into their 50s, he worries about who will carry on the sometimes backbreaking work of chopping wood and loading heavy crates of berries into the freezer.
Monasteries everywhere are working hard, competing to attract the few young men who still choose to live the life of a monk. A couple of years ago, Holy Transfiguration produced a video promoting their monastery. Dan, their current candidate, saw the video on a Catholic cable network, and—if he stays—would bring much-needed business experience as well as his personable manner to the group.
The monks also have plans to place newspaper ads in various Catholic publications. But the odds are against a rapid expansion in numbers. Over the past 35 years, the number of monks across the country dropped by half, with fewer than 6,000 remaining, according to a study by Georgetown University. At the same time, there’s a growing interest in monastic hospitality and spirituality. These brothers get at least a call a week from someone interested in a short getaway—interest that is likely an outgrowth of a nationwide trend toward simplicity.
As more people discover the tiny monastery, there’s not only an increased demand for the brothers’ time and hospitality, but also for their delicious jams, fruitcakes and truffles. As proof, business at the Jampot is hopping on a late autumn afternoon.
All three industrial ovens are filled to capacity with fruitcakes, and a hired helper named Charles is showing Dan the ropes of jam-making beneath the gaze of a life-sized painting of the Virgin Mary.
While the retail counter is closed for the season, the pace in the kitchen hasn’t slowed; in the course of a year, the monks make and sell about 20,000 jars of specialty jams and more than 5,000 loaves of fruitcake.
The brothers used to wake early each day to bake fresh sourdough bread. But the demand was too much; they were getting only three hours of sleep on a typical night and nodding off during worship, so they gave it up. To help keep their lives in balance, they’ve also occasionally considered giving up the mail-order business. Yet it helps finance another tool of their ministry—a newsletter called the Magnificat. Through the newsletter stories and a website, they share a glimpse of their cloistered life and monastic philosophy with about 26,000 readers. The monastery receives frequent letters from people who say the religious writings—and knowledge that the monks are praying for them—has boosted their own faith or brought healing and reassurance.
Dan has caught on quickly and soon has an entire table full of apricot jam ready for shipping. The simplicity of such a job is part of what drew him to monastic life, he says, because it allows a person to find a prayerful rhythm. But the radical commitment to this life is far more complicated than that.
“I’m not a weirdo,” he says. Nor did he have a traumatic childhood in his loving, upper-middle-class suburban home. The 32-year-old business school graduate sees a monastic life as an alternative to protesting society’s problem. Instead, he could live the way he believes life should be lived as an example to others.
“When Jesus said, ‘Sell what you have and follow me,’ “ he says. “He meant that literally.”
But Dan has also visited Benedictines in Arkansas and Trappists in New York before heading to the Keweenaw. He says he likes the Trappists best; he’s drawn by the fact that they take discipline further than the others. For example, they almost never speak, and, unlike the Benedictines, never allow guests at dinner or in cloistered areas.
“What it comes down to is silence. It’s the only way to get close to God.” Dan pauses and adds, “They’re very busy here.”
Father Basil has joined the conversation and quickly adds, “We’re building toward that—providing a way this can be more cloistered.”
But a more cloistered life isn’t possible until they get more help. And the heavy workload has driven more than one candidate away. The very next day, Dan asks to speak with Father Nicholas alone and announces his decision. He’s moving on.
Still, the dream remains—a thriving center for the arts, retreat cabins for artists and writers and musicians, inspirational concerts for tourists and plenty of silence for monks.
This past fall, they held their first community concert: an Interlochen faculty member performed for 40 members of the local community on a new concert grand piano. And as the brothers look ahead to winter, they see their “desert” season, a time of rest and contemplation when they can strap on cross-country skis and soak up the beauty of a deserted lakeshore.
Tomorrow, they all will wake hours before daylight to worship and then head to the kitchen to stir up thimbleberry jam.
And the real power of their work will be evident in the quiet moments like this one in the Jampot kitchen, as the young Father Ambrose prepares to leave the monastery on an errand. He moves over to Father Basil, whispers in his ear and then kneels on one knee. The elder father places his hand on his head and mumbles a quick prayer. The destination may be humble—today Father Ambrose is heading to the town dump—but every interaction, each venture into the world beyond the monastery walls is a chance to share their monastic kindness, simplicity and generosity. “I prayed for God to protect Father Ambrose,” Father Basil explains, “and that he be a blessing to everyone he meets.”
How to Order Monk Jam
Even during the holiday rush for their preserves and bourbon-laced fruitcakes, there is a quiet peace inside the kitchen. We refer to their creations fondly as monk jam: thimbleberry, wild blueberry, brandied peach—close to rapture—black cherry jams, wild crabapple, wild sugarplum. All jars are blessed as they head out the door.
The monks’ sunshiny orange marmalade is beautifully tart; we love the idea of a breakfast sandwich made with crisp strips of thick-cut bacon on baguette toast laden with butter and orange marmalade. This quirky but scrumptious English breakfast treat is lovely, melting and perfect for Christmas morning. The brothers sell a citrus trio with one jar each of tart lemon, lime and orange marmalades.
Click the Jampot link to order jams and other goods like Millennial Abbey Cake (a fruitcake laced with Jack Daniels).
A Monk’s Guide to a Balanced Life
There’s something irresistible about visiting a monastery—something you leave wanting for yourself. Michigan author Lonni Collins Pratt says the reason can be found in monks’ common sense manual for living: the Rule of St. Benedict. What’s more, she and co-author Father Daniel Homan say in their book, Benedict’s Way: An Ancient Monk’s Insight for a Balanced Life (Loyola Press, 2000), that the rules are the perfect guide for anyone wanting to challenge the American Dream and live a more substantive life. Here are a few of the authors’ tips:
- Listen is the first word of the rule. It can mean being still or looking for insight in a book, a movie, something spoken by a friend at lunch.
- Stability. A monk lives in sacred redundancy, following much the same routine every day of his life.
- Hospitality. Consciously be aware when someone needs a moment of kindness, some attention, a gracious gesture.
- Humility Regard others as superior to yourself; put others before you. Let someone else have the last piece of pie. Surrender the best parking spot.
- Possessions. Find ways to use what you already have rather than seeking more stuff, the authors suggest. For example, when you bring something new into your home, give something away.