'Death to the World': Punks turned Monks
Originally published in re:generation Quarterly
High in a Russian Orthodox monastery in the California mountains,
Father Damascene and Father John had a problem. They wanted to place
an ad in Maximum Rock and Roll, "the most hardcore" of all the punk
magazines, but were having trouble getting it past the editor.
If this sounds like the beginning of an interesting story, just
The story actually began a few years earlier. Four years ago, John
Marler arrived at the St. Herman of Alaska monastery in Platina,
California, weary of life. Though only nineteen, he had already been
guitarist in two successful punk-rock bands, Sleep and Paxton
Quiggly. Once he found faith in Christ and a home in Orthodoxy, the
new monk wanted to bring the same hope to the punk subculture he had
just escaped, a community of kids crippled by nihilism and despair.
The St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood (which sponsors the Platina
abbey and several other monasteries) had already begun attracting
some kids from the nearby town of Chico, and Mother Neonilla--
previously a "serious punker" herself--encouraged Fr. John to reach
out to them. The first idea called for fellow-monk Fr. Damascene
Christensen, who had recently completed the book Not of this World:
The Life and Teaching of Fr. Seraphim Rose, to write an article
about Fr. Seraphim for publication in Maximum Rock and Roll. "But as
I read over the magazine, I realized there was no way they'd publish
something like this," Fr. Damascene recalls.
Next, they decided to try to place an ad, but the editor's response--
"What the @#*% is a Brotherhood?"--tipped them off that this wasn't
going to fly either. The monks were told, "We only run ads for music
and 'zines." (For the uninitiated, a 'zine is a rough, homemade-
looking magazine, scissored and pasted and photocopied, and offered
cheap or free on the streets.)
"We need a 'zine," the monks told each other, and thus appeared one
of the oddest of the punk-style publications, Death to the World.
The cover of the first issue shows a white-bearded monk holding a
skull, and the inaugural essay begins, "The last true rebellion is
death to the world. To be crucified to the world and the world to
us." The back cover shows the figure on the Shroud of Turin, with
this caption: they hated me without a cause.
"These kids are sick of themselves," says Fr. Damascene, "and they
feel out of place in this world. We try to open up to them the
beauty of God's creation, and invite them to put to death 'the
passions,' which is what we mean by 'the world.' God takes despair
and turns it around to something positive. Selfish passions can then
be redirected into love for God, as Mary Magdalene did. We talk
about the idea of suffering because that is what the kids feel most
strongly. We show that there can be meaning in suffering."
The first issue, published in December 1994, was advertised in
Maximum Rock and Roll and brought letters from "all over the world--
Japan, Lithuania, Ireland." Copies of that issue were mailed to an
ever-growing list, distributed at punk shows, and photocopied and
passed along by others. Fr. Damascene estimates that more than
50,000 copies are now in circulation.
"Kids were writing to us and we realized they needed more personal
contact," says Fr. Damascene, so the Brotherhood began turning
bookstores and restaurants into coffeehouses, or "mystical
hangouts." There are now fourteen of these across the country and in
Europe and Australia, with flagship examples in Boston and Santa
A typical flyer, handed out to street kids, reads: "Desert Wisdom
Kaffe House, Kansas City's most mystical hangout. Drink Ethiopian
coffee & espresso. Hear ancient otherworldly chants. Smell rare
middle-eastern incense. Discover the ancient African & Eastern
superheroes." Of course the chants are Orthodox-style Christian
hymns, the incense is borrowed from liturgical use, and
the "superheroes" are saints of the Bible and church history. A
poster used at some coffeehouses shows a young monk holding open a
wooden box of bones and a skull. The caption reads, "Death to the
tyranny of fashion!"
Pretty sophisticated marketing strategy; we can well imagine this
reaching kids who will tune out anything less as manipulative and
sugar-coated. But like any good evangelism, it gets its power from
love for the lost. Father Paisius, also at the monastery,
explains, "This subculture is raucous and deeply disturbed because
of their own pain. It's demonic; they're living in hell, overdosing
on drugs, or maybe going into a rage and killing someone. They see
life as worthless. We want to show them an ideal that is worth their
life. These are marginalized youth who are wounded, and Death to the
World is meant to touch with a healing hand that wound."
A successful 'zine and chain of coffeehouses is an especially
impressive accomplishment considering how simply the monks live. The
California mountaintop monastery of St. Herman of Alaska has no
electricity, phone, or running water, and "the monks live in the
midst of rattlesnakes, scorpions, and peacocks, translating and
publishing wisdom from the holy fathers and mothers of ages past."
Another twelve miles up the mountain is a sister monastery for
women, St. Xenia Skete, also without phones, water, or electricity.
The nuns live in log cells they construct themselves; they "till the
garden, chop wood, and also work on publishing." It was not possible
to speak with Fr. John for this article, as he lives in a similar
monastery on an island off the Alaska coast where getting to a phone
requires prior notice by mail.
The Brotherhood's St. Paisius Abbey, however, has a few modern
conveniences, and the monks and nuns there are glad to fill orders
and answer questions.