Unlike most of the destinations on Spiritual Travels, St. Isaac of Syria Skete is not open for visitors. The monastery’s senior monastic, Father Simeon, said to me: “Tell people what we do, not where we are.”
So that’s just what I’ve going to do.
Actually, I’m not sure if I could find St. Isaac of Syria Skete again even if I tried. The place has a bit of a Brigadoon quality to it, as if it slips in and out of this plane of existence on its own sacred time table. Tucked away in remote, wooded valley in a sparsely populated part of Wisconsin, this small Eastern Orthodox monastic community is a skete, meaning that the monks have their own individual cells but work and worship in community.
The monastery is named in honor of St. Isaac of Syria, a seventh-century saint and theologian. It includes a private set of buildings accessible only to the community and a public area with a small but beautifully designed wooden church that looks like it has been magically transported from the steppes of Russia.
If you’re a regular reader of this site, you know that religious communities like this typically operate some sort of business to support themselves. St. Isaac is no exception: their business is making windows into heaven.
Or, to put it another way, they make icons.
You might know icons only as the little boxes on your computer screen, but religious icons have a far richer history and meaning. In a broad sense an icon is a picture of a holy person (the word, in fact, comes from the Greek eikon, meaning image). But in the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, icons are considered actual windows into heaven.
“If you want to see heaven, look into an icon,” Father Simeon told me. “And as we look at the figures in the icon, the holy ones look out at us. Icons provide a meeting point for heaven and earth.”
St. Isaac’s business was launched in 1989 with a vague plan to make a little money by selling icons church-door-to-church-door. But the monastery eventually realized that there was a wide market for its products. Hand-painted icons are exquisite but expensive, so the monastery decided it wanted to make these devotional works accessible to everyone at a reasonable price.
“Our mission is to find the greatest Christian icons in the world and reproduce them,” said Father Simeon. “We know that icons change people’s lives, and this is our way of both supporting ourselves and being of service to the larger world.”
Today St. Isaac of Syria Skete is one of the country’s largest producers of icons, with more than 2100 images in its inventory. The monastery sells to individuals, churches, bookstores and distributors, with a steady stream of boxes and packages shipped out of its rural Wisconsin home each weekday. While the majority of its customers are Orthodox, many come from other denominations, particularly Roman Catholic and Episcopalian/Anglican.
Members of the St. Isaac community have traveled around the world to take digital images of icons, from Jerusalem and Greece’s Mt. Athos to the Egyptian desert and Russia. (Because most icons are very old, they are not covered by copyright laws.) The monastery also has a large collection of books from which additional designs have been reproduced.
At the monastery I learned that choosing an icon is a bit like speed dating–you need to go with your gut instinct. Some images seem to have an immediate attraction for us, Father Simeon told me, which is a sign you’re supposed to pay attention to them. “Don’t over-intellectualize your choice,” he advised. “And don’t limit yourself to just one. The more icons the better. Just like you want to have a lot of windows in your house, you should have a lot of icons in your life.”
The Orthodox relationship to icons is intimate and intense. During liturgies, for example, icons are frequently kissed by the faithful. And at home, they are to be related to like a person. “You can talk to them as well as pray to them,” says Father Simeon. “They’re a way to relate to God as if He’s standing right there with you—which, of course, He is.”
Because of the large size of their business, the St. Isaac community has about a dozen locals who help with the many tasks that go into the making of an icon, including the printing of the images, the cutting and sanding of the wood plaques to which they are glued, and varnishing. During a typical week, between 400 and 800 icons are shipped from St. Isaac, ranging in size from a few inches to several feet across (the most popular are the Pantocrator image of Christ and Rublev’s Holy Trinity). The monastery also sells other religious items such as CDs, jewelry, medallions and imported items, but icons make up the majority of their business.
The community produces a much smaller number of hand-painted icons, each a marvel of gold leaf and luminous, rich colors. In the Orthodox tradition, the process is called “writing” an icon and is only done after long study and intense prayer. Father Anthony, who trained for years under a master Russian iconographer, is the community’s chief icon painter.
I came away from St. Isaac of Syria Sketeamazed at what they have been able to accomplish. It’s curious to me how most monasteries are located in remote, out-of-the-way places and yet somehow they manage to have a surprisingly large influence on the larger world. They are like grains of yeast in the baking of bread, small in size but essential.
If you want to browse St. Isaac’s selection of icons, go to St. Isaac of Syria Skete. Don’t you want to have a few windows into heaven in your house?