'You feel God here'
At the end of a dead-end street on the edge of the city limits in Stanwood, Wash. — past herds of sleeping cattle, down a long gravel driveway — there is a place people go to find God.
The ranch-style home is Jamestown blue, painted in August by the women who live there. In the summer, yellow sunflowers in a garden out front reach toward the heavens. In winter, fog thick as cotton isolates the home, obscuring the view of the gray slanted roofs of a nearby housing development.
From the outside, the house looks ordinary.
Inside, little does.
An ornate carved wooden iconostasis, imported in five pieces from Greece, fills the entire length of a wall. An offering of olive oil burns in a candilis suspended from the ceiling. Two-dimensional gold-leaf paintings of saints hang on nearly every wall in the house.
Four women in identical black habits live, work and pray here.
The Orthodox Christian nuns hold daily services in a chapel inside their home. They sleep in sparsely furnished rooms and, in a workshop they built beside their house, pour and sell the candles that fill the Convent of the Meeting of the Lord with a sweet, honey aroma.
Living in a modern world, they follow ancient traditions.
They fast and feast according to the Julian biblical calendar. They chant centuries' old prayers and always wear the long, black cassocks Orthodox nuns have worn for more than 1,000 years.
"When you become monastic, you really put the world behind you," said Mother Thecla, the abbess.
Every day begins with prayer.
Mothers Thecla, 46, Mary, 53, and Evdokia, 40, and Sister Mariam, 21, stand together in the chapel, chanting psalms. They sing quickly, without outward emotion. Four mouths move in unison. Words tumble into each other and blend together.
"Lord of Mercy. Lord of Mercy. Lord of Mercy."
It is for this — prayer — that the women gave up television, the possibility of marriage and children, and the freedom to spend vacations or holidays with their families.
Prayer is their purpose.
And yet, to live today, they need money. So after the service, they work.
Sister Mariam creates a forest with beeswax turtles, bears and trees on a shelf in the gift shop. Mother Evdokia hangs baroque lanterns in a window. Mother Thecla digs a box of red-and-green mosaic candleholders out of the attic.
They make about 40,000 beeswax tea light candles a year, plus thousands of votives. Sales are on the rise, but candle profits aren't enough to pay the bills. So they sell gifts from local craftsmen and vendors and receive donations from time to time.
They travel to the gift center in Seattle to meet with sales representatives and buy products that feel natural to them.
"We like things that are what they are — that aren't trying to be something else," Mother Evdokia said, arranging a display of candle holders.
Although the nuns scorn television, fiction books and newspapers, they share a cell phone and operate their own Web page to sell their Quiet Light Candles.
A bell rings outside the convent a little before noon. The lunch that Mother Mary has been preparing is almost ready.
The nuns leave the gift shop and walk through the chilly November air to the kitchen.
Four rassas, floor-length black cloaks with sleeves, hang on pegs.
Silently, each sister slips one on, as if preparing for church.
Meals are holy at the convent.
The sisters refer to mealtime as "trapeza," an ancient Greek word for table.
Together they sit.
At the head of the table, Mother Thecla picks up a book about Archbishop Auxentius and reads aloud. He protested a Greek order to follow the Papal calendar.
"The monks of Holy Transfiguration Monastery lived a hard and aesthetic life," she says.
As she reads, the others eat tofu and broccoli. They don't eat meat except on feast days, when they are allowed only fish.
Around them, icons watch. The paintings of saints — Herman of Alaska, Catherine, the martyrs of Armenia — help the sisters connect with the past and focus on God.
To practice discipline during meals, they are usually only allowed to drink after Mother Thecla rings a bell.
Men who visit the convent to assist with services or help with projects always dine apart, in a room near the chapel. Women visitors must put on skirts and cover their heads.
Orthodoxy hasn't changed much in the centuries since it formed. That's the point. Believers take their cues from the Bible and from previous generations of Orthodox Christians.
Male clergy don't cut their hair or shave their beards because Old Testament scriptures warn against the practice.
Orthodox nuns cover themselves completely, except for their hands and the moon of their face, out of modesty and tradition.
"We are not in step with the time," Father Panteleimon, a Boston-based priest, preached during the convent's feast day service last February. "It is not necessary to be in step with the times. What is in fashion today will not be tomorrow. We have this golden chain which links every generation of Christians who imitated the generations of Christians who came before them."
At a time when some Christian churches are using big screen TVs, surround sound and in-church coffee shops to draw crowds, Orthodoxy's refusal to change turns many young people off.
Though millions of people are born into the religion each year, Father Panteleimon, the spiritual father of U.S. convents, believes the number of devout practicing Orthodox Christians is falling.
During the last religious census in 2001, 645,000 Americans identified themselves as Orthodox Christians. That's compared to 50.8 million Catholics, 33.8 million Baptists and 2.7 million Mormons.
The convent is one of just two in the U.S. that follows the Julian calendar. Formed in 1999, it is an outgrowth of a much larger convent in Boston, where nuns make beeswax taper candles.
Mother Thecla rings a bell. Lunch is over.
The sisters stand silently, then pray.
They clear their dishes and return to work.
There are candles to pour, a Christmas tree to assemble in the gift shop and bills to pay.
The sisters try to repeat the same schedule. One day blends into the next. They aim to work, eat and worship at the same times every day, so they can think less and pray more.
The goal is to pray as much as possible, even while organizing files on the computer, washing dishes and mixing vats of 150-degree beeswax.
"Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me," the sisters repeat, again and again and again.
Mother Evdokia pours pale yellow beeswax into rows of empty tea light molds. Like water freezing, as the wax hardens it deepens in color and loses its transparency. Mother Mary holds wicks in place as the beeswax solidifies around them.
She began studying Orthodoxy at 16 and has spent most of her life in the convent.
"I was 18 when I decided and I never changed my mind," she said softly. "I've always liked the service and the life is pretty simple and our goals — which are never fully met."
In joining the convent, she and the other nuns left their previous selves behind. Shocking family and friends, they gave their lives to God and to a church that will always dictate where and how they live. They abandoned their homes, their social activities and even their names.
Shedding their family names, they adopted new first names in a ceremony when they took their vows. Names were written on slips of paper and placed on a holy table. One was drawn for each sister. The nuns believe they are from God.
Mother Evdokia and Sister Mariam, who grew up in the country of Georgia, were both raised in Orthodox families. The other nuns of the Convent of the Meeting of the Lord were raised in other denominations and turned to Orthodoxy as young adults.
After a trial period as a sister, each nun commits herself to the monastic life and emerges as a mother. Sister Mariam is the only nun at the convent who hasn't taken the final step. Because of this, she is not supposed to talk much and is expected to spend more time reflecting.
"She can decide if she'd like to stay here," her mother, Nino Bakurabze, said during a visit to Stanwood last summer. "If she likes that kind of life, it's OK."
The nuns don't evangelize and they don't advertise their worship services, but people come. They are welcome.
Nearly every day, at least one visitor knocks on their door. Some see them shopping in town and have questions. Some come seeking advice or prayers. Some come for the candles, which the sisters say clean the air and can help alleviate allergies.
The nuns have no qualms putting visitors to work. Volunteers helped build the workshop, plant the garden and renovate the convent.
Sophia Teachman showed up at the convent three years ago after seeing the nuns driving through Stanwood. Fed up with long-winded sermons at other Christian churches, the Stanwood phlebotomist was looking for a scripture-based church without all "the hullabaloo."
She converted, and now visits the convent whenever she has time.
"It's so peaceful," she said, breathing in the sweet air of the candle shop. "You feel God here."
A broken water heater brought Dale Furman to the convent. The 61-year-old plumber fixed the heater, and the nuns helped mend his heart. The Vietnam veteran is not an Orthodox Christian, but he believes God is present at the convent.
"This is my sanctuary here," he said, standing in the convent's driveway in brown cowboy boots, jeans and a shirt with "Dale" embroidered on it. "I feel safe and secure. If you come here with an open heart, there's peace."
At 2 p.m., silence falls over the convent.
In their rooms, sisters pray. Chores wait. The phone rings, unanswered.
After two hours, the nuns shuffle into the chapel. The sun drifts toward the horizon. They light candles for vespers.
They chant, their voices rising and falling as one into the night.
"Dear Christ God, the savior that gave us birth," they sing. "I beg thee, oh Virgin, from afflictions deliver me. For now unto thee I flee for refuge. Bring me to thee, both my soul and my reasoning, both now, ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen."
For hours, they chant.
The sun disappears.
Beads of wax drip down handmade candles. The air is tinged with the subtle scent of honey and the pungent odor of incense.
Voices echo into the darkness.
Outside, the night is quiet. A car rumbles in the distance and a bird caws.
In the windows of the convent, a quiet light glows.