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Silent retreats a surprise hit at Finnish Orthodox monastery

The brotherhood of the New Valamo Monastery in Heinävesi has been pleasantly surprised at growing interest in its activities. The Finnish Orthodox Church has been offering spiritual ceremonies, classes and popular silent retreats at this tranquil setting in eastern Finland for years, but interest in the retreats in particular has skyrocketed in the last three years.

Ortodoksisen munkkiluostarin johtaja arkkimandriitta Sergei.
Archimandrite Sergei of the New Valamo Monastery. Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle

The New Valamo Monastery's peak silent retreat season is Easter, but demand for the spiritual breaks from the hectic day-to-day is increasing.

"The monastery is a place of prayer, silence and holiness. People come here for many reasons: to renew their faith or for reasons they can't quite explain," says Archimandrite Sergei, leader of the monastery since 1995.

He says the silent retreats the monastery arranges have grown in popularity, attracting people of all ages and backgrounds to the monastery.

"The popularity of the silent retreats has surprised us. People clearly long for these kinds of guided opportunities for quiet reflection," he says.

Located in Heinävesi, New Valamo is a centre of the Finnish Orthodox Church in Finland. The monastery has been active in its present location since 1940, but its history dates back to 1717, as it was originally established on an archipelago known as Valamo on the northern shores of Lake Ladoga, located in the Karelian Republic of the Russian Federation.

In 1939, during the Winter War, some 190 monks from the Karelian monastery were evacuated to Eastern Finland, after Soviet forces occupied the area.

The second national church of Finland, the Finnish Orthodox Church currently has three dioceses and about 58,000 members, accounting for 1.1 percent of the Finnish population.

Self-directed or official programme

About 120,000 travellers pass through the New Valamo Monastery each year. Many also chose to stay for a few days in a kind of self-imposed silent retreat. Visitors are free to cross-country ski the monastery grounds in the winter and participate in icon painting courses at the facility's folk high school, if they prefer this to the monastery's official silent retreat programme.

Mikkeli residents Sanna Kekkonen and Mirka Piironen say they've come to New Valamo to charge their batteries.

"It gives you time to think about which direction you are headed in and what you want from life," one of the women says.

Among other things, the monastery's website reminds potential guests that the rooms have no TVs or radios, and the lights are dimmed at 9 pm. Some rooms have access to free Wi-Fi. The dress code for visitors says that knees and shoulders must be covered at all times.

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