I spent four days at the St. John the Baptist monastery in Essex, England. This is an Eastern Orthodox monastery (founded by a Russian, Father Sophrony but currently under the Ecumenical Patriarchate). It is about an hour’s drive from London, far enough from the city to be well away from the bustle, but still near enough that it is easily accessible with public transport.
Here are some pictures of the monastery! The buildings have really unique looking iconography on them.
The monastery hosts a few dozen monks and nuns of various nationalities. They have a lot of space for guests too. When I was there, there was a group of 20 or so Belgians who were also staying that week, and a few other individual guests as well. The monastery feeds and houses us for free.
Here is what the schedule is like:
There are services every morning and evening, and meals at set times. The food is amazing! I went during a fast period, so it was all vegan. We sit in the common hall together. For breakfast and tea, it is rather casual. But for lunch and dinner, we have assigned seating, so a good opportunity to meet the monks and other guests. There is also a reading from famous monastic writings to contemplate during lunch and dinner. Here is a photo of a typical meal: olives, sweet potato, lettuce, and a bean, corn and pea dish (there was also a boiled wheat dish that showed up after I took this photo).
Not mentioned in the schedule is a “common work” project at 2.30pm that guests can participate in if they want- we do chores around the monastery, mostly involving yard-work.
I spent four days at the monastery, attending services, reading, and spending time in prayer and contemplation. My favorite part of the stay was getting to talk with the monks. They were all exceptionally friendly and happy to chat. I was even able to set an appointment with one of the priests to talk for an hour or so.
I went during the summer, when the weather was sunny and pleasant. A really conducive environment for contemplation, reading and prayer! Here are some pictures of the monastery grounds:
My four days there were really enjoyable, and something I hope I can do again. I feel that it is necessary for those of us “in the world” to maintain in contact with monasteries, to remind ourselves continually that the daily grind of work and family obligations is not all there is to life.
How to get there?
I traveled by train. The best train station to get to is Whitham, which is about an hour away from London’s Liverpool Street Station. From there a bus makes its way to the monastery, a trip that takes half an hour. The bus stop at Tolleshunt Knight Top Road is a five-minute walk from the monastery. Be aware that the bus does not run on Sundays, and that phone coverage can be very weak around the monastery area.
How to arrange for a stay?
If you intend to stay at the monastery for a few nights, call them at : +44 1621 816471
I was told that the best time to reach them is between 2pm-3pm their time (GMT). There is no charge for room and board, although you are free to contribute to the monastery if you desire. The accommodations I got was in a shared dormitory, but it was all really pleasant:
What to bring?
Bring long-sleeved shirts for the service, preferably in subdued colors. It would also be good to bring work clothes if you intend to help out with the yardwork and chores. The monastery has a rather large bookstore with a good selection of books and icons, but they only accept cash- so bring some cash if you intend to purchase anything.