When John Marler arrived at the St. Herman monastery in Platina, California, he was only 19, but he was already in a state of advanced world-weariness. A disenchanted ex-guitarist for hard-core bands Sleep and Paxton Quiggly, he was hoping that the monk’s life would grant him a modicum of relief from the nihilism and despair of the alternative rock scene. Four years later, Father John, as he’s sometimes called, has become an inspiration to a surprisingly growing number of young people eager to embrace the mystical theology of—are you ready?—Eastern Orthodoxy.
As Frederica Mathewes-Green reports in re: generation quarterly (Winter 1997), Marler and two other punks-turned-monks at St Hermans—Mother Neonilla and Father Damascene—are reaching out to disaffected teens in ways hitherto unexplored by Orthodox Christianity: a zine, alternative music, a website, and a chain of coffeehouses. The zine, Death to the World, has reached more than 50,000 readers, mostly punks who “feel out of place in this world,” says Father Damascene. “We try to open up to them the beauty of God’s creation,” he adds, “and invite them to put to death ‘the passions,’ which is what we mean by ‘the world.’”
What’s most remarkable about these monks is that they’re tapping the heart of contemporary youth culture even though they have little or no contact with its commercial manifestations. Two of the St. Herman Brotherhood’s three California monasteries have no electricity, phones, or running water. And Father John lives in a monastery on an island off Alaska and communicates only by mail.
On another level, however, the leap from punk to monk should not be that startling. Punk rock has always been a semi-monastic movement, with its distinctive reject-the-world garb and ritualistic mortifications of the flesh. The one thing punk has always insisted upon, from the very beginning, is passion. It didn’t matter much whether it was the passionate nihilism of the Sex Pistols or the passionate idealism of the Clash as long as it was fervent and deeply felt. It’s no accident that the hard-core wing of the punk movement gave birth early on to the “straight-edge” ethos, in which followers swear to abstain from drugs, drink, and meat.
There’s something about going all the way, without compromise or equivocation, that appeals to young people in a time when commitments of all kinds, from employment to marriage, seem temporary and conditional. Of course, going all the way can mean all the way out—to drugs, or crime, or a one-way trip to the Hale-Bopp mothership. Or, as in the case of the punk monks, it can mean going all the way into the life of the spirit.