“Death to the World” Journal

2005; Regneration Quarterly, Washington Times

New Issue XXVIII

Death to the World

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 wait.

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 a book on 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 Rosa, California.

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.

St. Herman of Alaska Monastery, however, has a few modern conveniences, and the monks and nuns there are glad to fill orders and answer questions.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.


  1. This is a holy story indeed. I am at the Glen Workshop in Sesttle this week about faith and the arts and finding ways to communicate the light into a darkened world. It is sponsored each year by Image Magazine a literary journal about fairh and the arts and how these can be authentic windows into Gods love and truths. I am going to share this article with them.

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