Making Candles at St. John’s Monastery

What’s warm, secreted by a gland near the stomach, smells ambrosial, and can be molded into most any shape?  Well, it’d have to be bee’s wax!  On a recent visit to The Monastery of St. John of San Francisco, we discovered the age-old art of candle making.  Elliot, who’s been working in their big metal building for several months, schooled us on the entire process, from bee hive to candle.  After the tour, he invited us to join him in making a few boxes of golden tapers.

Bees’s wax, that pliable bi-product of the honey bee, is harvested right from the monastery property.  St. John’s uses the wax from their 40 + hives plus other local hives to make candles, which they sell to churches around the country.  They also sell honey and soap, along with books and icons in their on-site bookstore.  These products, in part, support the men who pray and serve here at the monastery.

When we saw the big metal building, we tried the door knob and it was stuck.  So, I called in my confident mom voice, “Anybody home?”  That’s when Elliot called back, “Come on in.  The door’s unlocked.”  We turned the handled a little harder and gave the door a good shove which suddenly opened into a warehouse space, slightly cooled by an overworked air conditioner.  We didn’t complain as it was 99 degrees outside.

Upon entering, we saw wooden hive boxes, a vat of molten wax and bags of bee food.  Elliot was dipping symmetrical wicks into a hot liquid.  We had arrived at the candle making shop.  Immediately, Elliot introduced himself and upon asking, showed us the complete process.  We talked about the hives and how the monastery has a symbiotic relationship with the honey bees.  He showed us the honey comb and invited a taste of the gooey nectar.  He gestured over to the spool of wicks and the wooden structures used to dip wax in candle shapes.  He described the various shapes and sizes of candles made here.

Of course, Gabe asked what everyone wanted to ask, “Can I try?”  At that, Elliot said, “Grab a frame and I’ll show you how to dip.”

So, there was dipping and more dipping.  Narrow tapers are dipped 3 times, and thicker candles are dipped as many as 6 times. Then, we learned how to cut the tapers free from the frame, how to restring the frames and how to pour molten wax into molds to create votives and pillars.  I think we made at least 2 or 3 boxes of candles that day.

We all had so much fun dipping, cutting, restringing and pouring. I just kept snapping pictures.

At some point, a big kid said “Let’s eat,” and we cleared out and joined the monks for lunch.  Three hours had passed in that metal building.

As we left the next morning, Gabe showed me a small pack of candles that Elliot gave him as a thank you for all his hard work.  “I can’t wait to burn these at home,” Gabe told me as he wrapped and packed them carefully into his suitcase. “They will remind me of our time here.”

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The Hills of Manton

It was late when we saw the sign.  Well after dark, the temperature gauge in our rented SUV still read 85 degrees. Our headlights touched the wide house and a dog lurched out, tail wagging, energetic to see visitors even in the waning heat. There were no street lights up here, just turkeys, gentle grape-lined slopes and Ponderosa pines. All was quiet when we stepped out from the vehicle onto the gravel drive.  Accompanied by the friendly dog, we made brief contact with an inhabitant of the house who directed us to the pilgrim’s dormitory. There we slept and awoke to profound heat, smoke from a distant fire and a call to morning prayer.

This was the monastery of St. John of San Francisco in Manton, California.  We, pilgrims of a sort, were here to see and experience monastery life in northern California in July!

We came with questions.  How will we wake at 6 am for prayer?  Would the monastics share their lives and stories with us? What would we do while we were here?  What would we eat?  The answers to these questions and more would soon be revealed.

Our first morning was hot and beautiful.  Quickly we learned that Father Andrew had made the trip to town for a doctor’s appointment and Father Innocent was away at the All-American Council meeting.  It was just our family and two other monks.  The schedule was a little different due to these happenings, so we just went with the flow.

First, we ate a light breakfast with Father Photios and Father Alexios, the gentlest of men who showed us the bookstore and made sure we were comfortable.  Father Photios shared briefly about his life experiences and how he came to be at the Monastery of St. John.

Next, we walked the property to see chickens and some dandelions that hadn’t yet baked in the scorching heat.  We observed bee hives and a garden space that needed weeding. We then discovered the candle making shop and Elliot.  Elliot, an agricultural buff who harvests local herbs, comes here 3 or 4 times a week to make beeswax candles, the old-fashioned way.  The scent of liquid wax and the sight of sundry shades of gold charmed our senses as we toured his workspace.

Elliot gave us a tutorial of the operation complete with hands-on participation and I will share these details in my next post.  Everyone made candles, lots of candles!

After candle crafting, we joined with Fathers Photios and Alexios and Elliot for a simple lunch of vegetables and bread, peanut butter and jelly, and salad.  Then, to our surprise, Riley, our 18 year old, suggested that after lunch we take a drive “into town.” A quick glance at the thermometer showed 99 ; no big deal up here in mid-summer.  On the drive, we discovered that (1) the Manton saloon is both general store and post office, (2) there’s always a seat for you at the orange piano, and (3) to cool off, you sit outside the saloon.  Since there only about 350 residents in this community, we were able to tour the town rather quickly.

Next, everyone fell out in the pilgrim’s house.  The house was a rather large and comfortable two-story home with an ample kitchen and an inviting spiritual book corner. At 5:45 pm, the call was given for evening prayer.  Father Andrew had returned was pounding the board wearing ear muffs.

The heat had become a part of us now, each of us like little flames in the afternoon sun. Even the dog was panting under the shade of a nearby bench.  Then, like peeking your head up into the attic on an early December day, we caught a breath of cool, fresh air when the door of the chapel opened.  The chapel was dimly lit and wonderfully air conditioned.  An icon of Christ and His mother greeted us and made us feel like we were home.  Father Photios motioned that we join him at the chanter’s stand.  We did, and it was a beautiful service.

We prayed for an hour and stepped out into dry heat and long shadows cast by tall pines.

Dinner that night was a satisfying meal of fish and vegetables.  After the dinner blessing, the brothers listened to a spiritual podcast. We joined with them, eating and listening, followed by a time of light conversation and kitchen cleaning.

This was our last evening.

In the morning, we arose early, to the sound of a mallet hitting a board.  It was a peaceful, temperate sound, not too jarring.  6:00 am…  time for a meditation on the Jesus Prayer followed by Matins and morning prayers.  As we prayed, a soft light entered the chapel and Father Alexios sang a hymn to the Theotokos.

 

Reflecting on our experience here, I have made these observations:

Monastic life is difficult, but lovely.  There is a routine and a flow to daily life that is uninterrupted by traffic, social media and soccer practice.  This cloistered life is a sacrifice, but it is also a gift.  Through the sacrifice these men make to living a daily life of prayer and fasting, these brothers give us a different perspective on life and faith.  They provide us a glimpse into a simpler life that is uncluttered with materialism, false pretense and worldly accomplishment.  They show us what we can be when we slow down and remain quiet.  They remind us we don’t need as much as we think we do.

In these hills of Manton, the monks opened wide their doors to us simple pilgrims coming with simple questions.  Yet, the best gift they gave was the occasion to open our hearts to something more profound: a life of sacrifice and prayer.  In this, our eyes were opened to what and who we can become in Christ.

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  Romans 12:2