We had the incredible privilege of celebrating the Feast of Ascension this year with the brotherhood at St. Gregory of Palamas Monastery in Perrysville, Ohio.
It was a beautiful day, and we got to spend some time with Father Michael, Mother Theodelphi from a nearby skete, and some other pilgrims who came to celebrate the feast. The experience was wonderful, but as with many things I do, I had a whole lot of “why didn’t I think of that before now?!” moments. My (considerably more) thoughtful husband did have the good sense to call ahead and mention William’s diagnosis, but I wish I would have thought more about how to prepare William for the experience.
Thankfully, nothing catastrophic happened. William even grew quite fond of Father Michael, and told him and Mother Theodelphi “Peace out!” on his way out the door. They were all “BAHAHAHA” which was absolute perfection.
So, here’s a quick list of things that we either did well, or wish we’d done on our trip to the monastery.
1. Call or email ahead. Since you’re a guest and all. It’s just good manners. Here are some things to address (not necessarily in this order):
- Some monasteries request that women and girls wear head coverings. If you think this might be an issue for your daughter, ask if they can spare some flexibility on this for a special needs child.
- If your child’s on a special diet, make sure they know that you plan to bring your own food for him/her, and that you have no expectation for them to meet your child’s specific dietary needs.
- Concisely tell your contact that your child has autism, and short-list a few things you think they’ll need to know, along with your plan of action (i.e., He has a hard time in new places; I may walk him in and out, or we may just stand in the doorway). Your goal in sharing this information is not to ask anything of them, but to prevent them from being surprised or misunderstanding what’s happening during services. If you have to ask anything of them, do your best to keep demands to a minimum, and try to frame them as a question of whether or not they would permit you to do the thing. For instance,
- “Do you mind if we bring her food?” instead of “We’ll need a gluten free lunch.”
- “Do you mind if we step out during censing?” instead of “Would you please use a mild incense or a censer without bells?”
- “We’d like to come down to the chapel after the bells are rung, if it would not be too disruptive to the service,” instead of “Can you use a different call to worship that day?”
- Explain your child’s need for an order of events. I know I just said to demand as little as possible, but there’s a gentle way to do this. You can simply ask your contact the order of the day, and explain that you’re asking so you can prepare your child, because preparing him with an order of events improves his peacefulness and minimizes disruptions. Tip: I wouldn’t use the words “schedule” or “timeline,” since they imply that you’re looking for everything to be timed. In my (admittedly limited) experience, monastics hold peace in high priority, so they might bristle at the idea of having to rush anything for the sake of staying on the schedule or timeline. They *are* orderly in the way they do things, however, so asking what order in which things are expected to take place would be perfectly reasonable.
2. Be willing to try things. Things that you’d think wouldn’t work, might.
- Like a head covering. She might find it soothing. Bring a couple options–big floppy hat, kerchief (over the ears), and/or a scarf with a tight tie behind the ears so it doesn’t cover peripherals. One of them might work!
- The monastics will have tasks that they might be willing to share–the crafting of prayer ropes, candles, woodworking.Your child might like the process if they’re willing to show it to you.
3. Do your research.
- Find pictures online and share them with your child.
- If you know it’s a Greek monastery, and if you have the time to do such a thing, look up the Greek tones. Or just play some Ancient Faith Radio in the days or weeks leading up to your trip, so perhaps the music isn’t completely unfamiliar.
- Some monasteries’ websites have helpful, interesting information–introductions to the monastics themselves, the story of its founding and/or patron saint. Gobble it up. Any information you can prepare your child with can help. You probably can’t give him too much.
4. Connect their interests with your child’s. I actually saved a meltdown at one point by blurting out, “He’s really interested in the garden we’re growing at home, and I see you have a big garden out front. I think he’d like to hear about what you’re growing; would you mind telling him about that?” Feel it out; they might even be willing to show you around.
5. Have a schedule to share with your child, and review for several days in advance. You know when you asked for an order of events? List it out, and review it with her a few times before you go. Here’s an example:
- Conversation with monks/nuns
- Tour of the grounds
- Candle making
- Quick peek at the garden
- Go home
Do you have any tips for visiting a monastery? I’d love to hear what works for you!