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April 11, 2014

A monastery in the Hebrides, after 1,000 years

Father Seraphim Aldea is so committed to building the first Orthodox monastery in the Scottish isles in more than a millennium that he did something no monk searching for solitude would ever, ever do.

"I learned how to use that dreadful Facebook thing," he said. The Romanian monk has already been handed an abandoned Church of Scotland sanctuary on Mull Island. While Kilninian was built in 1755, it appears in 1561 records as a site associated with the great Monastery of St. Columba on Iona. Thus, this property may have been linked to monasticism as early as the seventh century.

But there is a problem. The Atlantic coast of Scotland, including the 150 main Hebrides islands, is now a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty -- which means major restrictions for anyone wanting to build or restore anything.

Normally, starting a monastery means obtaining land and then gathering some monks to move there, noted Father Seraphim during a fundraising swing through the Baltimore area. The monks build their facility and then it's dedicated. But that isn't how things work in Great Britain these days. Before the 34-year-old monk can build a single monastic cell, he has to buy land that can provide running water and a sewage system.

"I need your help ... to build that toilet," he said, drawing laughter from his audience. "It sounds stupid, but that's all there is. We can build the first monastery in the Hebrides in over a millennium if I can build a toilet."

Scotland and Ireland have for centuries -- well before the 1054 schism between Rome and the Orthodox East -- been famous for the work of St. Columba, St. Brigid, St. Brendan and other great Celtic monastics. Pilgrims continue to flock to these lands to visit ruins on these sacred sites.

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