Monastery preserves the old, welcomes the new. Monks use modern tools to restore ancient icons

Last year, the Finnish Orthodox monastery of New Valamo received a computer as a gift from the government. The Orthodox community in Eastern Finland watched with interest to see what the monks would do with this high-tech tool. No one was quite sure how electronic wizardry would interface with the brotherhood of this ancient Christian sect.

Enter Father Ambrosius, a priest-monk who is the unofficial spokesman for New Valamo and who bridges the old ways and the modern world with ease. Not only did he bless the computer, a required custom for all new articles to be used by the monks, but he compared its huge information storage capacity to the ``megabytes of God's love.'' His benediction made the evening news.

The computer, by the way, has been recruited to help with the monastery's bookkeeping and record storage.

So it goes at this quiet monastery overlooking the lush green Finnish countryside. The simple, whitewashed buildings were built 10 years ago, but the original Valamo monastery (located in what is now part of the USSR) was the spiritual center of Northern Russia and Eastern Finland for several centuries.

Some of its treasures were salvaged and brought to the new location after the Fenno-Russian war of 1939-40, when Old Valamo was lost to the Soviet Union. About 150 monks emigrated to New Valamo, then the site of an 18th century manor house and some outbuildings. In the late '70s, a church, dormitories, and hotel rooms were built. About 15 monks now make up the brotherhood.

The somber-looking, black-robed monks live humble lives. To sustain their community, they open the monastery to visitors and pilgrims who stay in the small hotel and patronize a restaurant and gift shop.

The church at New Valamo is filled with icons and religious relics hundreds of years old. The monastery operates an icon restoration facility nearby, which uses ultramodern equipment to repair iconographic treasures from all over Europe. According to the monks, this is the only such facility specializing in paintings on wood.

Fr. Ambrosius points to a badly dilapidated wood painting on one of the work tables. It looks like it had been a termite metropolis.

``Do you think this icon is beyond repair?'' he asks rhetorically. ``It will be restored like new,'' he answers.

He then points out the technology that helps them do that: the huge microscope used for the detailed, painstaking repair work, and the large vacuum hoses that hang like elephant trunks from the ceiling. They are used to suck out the noxious vapors that come from the different paint and preservative solutions. Shelves are full of different sized bottles and brushes. The high windows let in diffuse northern light, the best kind for working on old, delicate art.

Although this is serious work, Fr. Ambrosius reveals a sense of humor that is, well, unorthodox.

Last year, when the president's wife, Mrs. Taimi Koivisto, visited the icon preservation unit, Fr. Ambrosius quipped, ``I told her that whenever she needs more permanent makeup, she could contact us.''

Then, he directs us to a restored icon of St. Nicholas. ``Here we have the predecessor of the comic strip, complete with captions,'' he says, smiling. ``As Eastern Orthodox, we are traditionalists in many aspects of church life, but in this case we were ahead of the times.''

Tradition holds that Old Valamo was founded on Lake Lagoda in the middle 1100s. But the earliest written documents here date from the beginning of the 14th century. It became one of Russian Orthodoxy's most prominent monasteries during the religious revivals of the 19th century.

After Finland proclaimed its independence in 1917, the Finnish Orthodox Church, following some struggles, was recognized as an autonomous religious body by both the Greek and Russian Patriarchs.

Both the Lutheran and the Orthodox churches were declared official state churches in the Finnish constitution. As such, they are supported by the government.

Orthodoxy is practiced by about two percent of Finland's people. The majority of them live in Karelia, which borders the Soviet Union.

New Valamo has an important historical link to the Russian Orthodox church, which has been reenforced recently by the Soviets' new openness in allowing exchanges between students of theology. Orthodox seminary students from Leningrad have begun visits and exchanges with the monastery - something unheard of five years ago.

``New Valamo plays an important role in the Orthodox world,'' says Fr. Robert Arida of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Boston, Mass. ``It is a monastic community whose reputation goes beyond Finland and Russia. Valamo has ties to the United States as well.''

In the late 18th Century a small group of monks from Valamo arrived in Alaska as missionaries to the natives. From this community sprang the beginnings of the Orthodox church in America.

Mark Stokoe, president of Syndesmos, an international Orthodox youth organization based in Helsinki, says, ``New Valamo is known for its excellence, the artistic talent of its monks and the overall reputation for tolerance.'' He also adds that Fr. Ambrosius is mainly responsible for continuing and expanding that reputation.

Many here would agree. Largely through Ambrosius' efforts, the monastery's library is a theologian's dream - 20,000 modern religious tomes have been amassed, in addition to the 30,000 volumes in Slavonic retrieved from Old Valamo.

Because Valamo is an ``open'' monastery, the brotherhood also serves the community in several ways. New Valamo offers a lay academy that holds classes on religious art, liturgy, and life-style issues. Orthodox conscientious objectors to Finland's mandatory two-year military duty may serve out their time at the monastery doing chores and maintenance work.

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