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Monastery makes a peaceful oasis near Florence

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Posted: Saturday, October 4, 2008 4:44 pm | Updated: 10:13 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Drive south from Florence, past the cotton fields, rocky foothills, and crosshatched power lines, and a beautiful terracotta tower will poke up out of nowhere. Head down state Highway 79, with the tower on your left, and a vibrant white building - capped with a cobalt blue dome - will float into view from a hillside.

VIDEO: Inside St. Anthony's Greek Monastery

Drive south from Florence, past the cotton fields, rocky foothills, and crosshatched power lines, and a beautiful terracotta tower will poke up out of nowhere. Head down state Highway 79, with the tower on your left, and a vibrant white building - capped with a cobalt blue dome - will float into view from a hillside. It resembles something from the coast of the Aegean Sea, and it heralds the approach of St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery, an elegant spiritual redoubt wrapped in the dusty desert.

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"The buildings you saw are two of our chapels," Father Markellos tells me, "the white chapel is new."

Founded in 1995, by monks from northern Greece, St. Anthony's offers many an architectural jewel. Terra-cotta walkways weave their way between immaculate gardens, fountain grottoes and prayer chapels.

Each chapel offers a distinctive look on the outside - stone archways, proud spires or elegant domes. Enter a chapel and a waft of incense and a sense of solemnity greet you, as you return the doe-eyed stares of the Byzantine madonnas, Christs, saints and martyrs that fill the walls between the vaulted ceilings and marble inlaid floors.

St. Anthony's has four such chapels, each unique and breathtaking in its own way.

The monastery is home to 42 Greek Orthodox monks honoring God with a life of prayer and austerity.

"We wake every night at 11 p.m., for two hours of personal prayer," Father Markellos says. "So our first thoughts of the day are for God."

Personal prayer is followed by a communal service, 1:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m., "then we rest, get a little breakfast and begin our daily work around 9 a.m."

The monks wear simple black surplices and black caps with a red cross in the front. Most have flowing, salt-and-pepper beards and tread quietly along the walkways, leery of attention.

Daily work includes harvesting the olives, dates, lemons, oranges and grapefruit grown on site, and tending the ornate chapels and gardens. But their foremost duty is prayer and contemplation of God.

"It is a joyful life, but a rigorous one," Father Markellos says. Soft-spoken and camera-shy, he is devoted to this place. "I think, if people knew how beautiful it was, everyone would want to be a monk. If they knew how difficult it was, no one would want to be a monk," he chuckles. "So, it's a tricky point there."

One of about 20 such monasteries in the United States, St. Anthony's has guest quarters for Greek Orthodox tourists.

Day visitors of any persuasion are welcome between 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. The tours are self-guided - you check in at the bookstore first - and they're free. But the monks require a specific dress code (long pants and sleeves, scarves for women), so a visit to their Web site is advised before you go.

It's worth the trouble. Very few places can offer you a breath of Byzantium in the heart of Arizona. And the beauty of their gardens and the quiet of the chapels allow you to contemplate your own take on the divine.

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