Virginia: “When will you start writing in Greek? English comes difficult to me. I struggle with your posts. Please consider …”
And Gianna. And Kalliopi. And …
It seems this blog may soon become bilingual… Maybe I should alternate one blogpost in Greek, one in English? … Once, twice a week? Do you think this is a good idea? On the bus, on our way to Attica, my Greek friends asked me to share on the microphone a few of my experiences here. They gasped at the stories I told them. They did not know. How could they even begin to imagine?
I feel I owe this to my Greek and Cypriot brethren who should not be left behind. They need to recover Orthodoxy, expand their horizons and learn about Orthodoxy’s struggles in foreign lands. In so many ways, I have discovered more about Orthodoxy during my brief ‘exile’ in an un-Orthodox country than in a lifetime in an Orthodox one.
Besides, any missionary endeavour and blog require by their very nature more than one tongue. At Pentecost “every man heard them speak in his own language”(Acts 2:6). I still find writing in English a lot harder than in Greek my mother tongue, and there are a lot of texts yet untranslated in English.
What is your opinion? Do you have any suggestions? I would be so grateful for any help.
I am back. I can’t believe a whole month flew by so fast! Thank you for staying in touch through my inbox. So many emails to reply, questions to answer, stories to be told … Please be patient with me, as I am still unpacking. My pilgrimage to Attica, Aegina and Euboia lasted only a few precious days, yet had quite an effect on me. It felt like a landmark and a watershed. More in the posts to follow…
Bethlehem! The birthplace of our Lord and Savior and the cradle of biblical history. Bethlehem (Hebrew: בֵּית לֶחֶם Bet Lehem, [bet ˈleχem], “House of Bread”) is located five and half miles from Jerusalem. No town in the world has such a glorious history as Bethlehem. Our Elders together with a number of Holy Land Hieromonks offer a Holy Liturgy at the Church of the Nativity.
A Greek Orthodox Church, which has been built over the birthplace of Our Lord by the Emperor Justinian and is over 1,500 years old. It is the second oldest Orthodox Church in existence. It was not destroyed by the Persians, as they saw a mosaic of the Magi dressed in Persian wear over the front door. Words cannot communicate what we experienced in venerating and touching the actual ground where Jesus was born. A few feet away is the Holy Manger.
Such insight and perception of the all too frail human priest from Father Seraphim Aldea!
The life of the beloved Eldress Theosemni is a Synaxarion account of perfection in self-emptying and martyric asceticism in silence and humility. Her personage and her venerable example cannot be appreciated through the description and listing of her virtues, for it is impossible to explain, through words, the balance and grace of a person who spoke through her silence.
By the Nun Theoxeni, Abbess of the Holy Monastery of Chrysopigi, Hania, Crete
The Eldress Theosemni, Anastasia-Aristea Dimtsa in the world, was born in Larissa in the year 1938, the third child of pious parents. When she was just four years old, she lost her father and the care of the family fell to its newly widowed mother, who was from Eastern Romylia and was wholly dedicated to God.
From the time she was a child, she received profound love from Christ and the Church, and she would hasten to attend the services and all-night vigils with a zeal that was unusual for her age. She also participated with great zeal in the youth activities at church and, from a very early age, expressed her desire to serve as a missionary.
She studied at the Red Cross’s School for Nursing, from which she graduated with highest honors. She chose this path out of zeal to serve humans in pain.
In 1966 she became a nun at Meteora. It is widely agreed that her monastic path was a model of obedience and asceticism. Unforeseen difficulties arose at that time, at the beginning of her monastic path, with which she dealt prudently, quietly, and humbly.
In 1976, Eldress Theosemni went to Hania (Crete) with two other nuns and, with the blessing of his eminence Metropolitan Irenaeus of Kydonia and Apokoronos, she took on the reconstruction, from its foundation, of the ruined Chrysopigi Monastery. Over the course of twenty-four years she worked in silence, with perfect self-renunciation. Her spiritual presence and her ascetic example encouraged many souls to dedicate their lives to the Bridegroom Christ, and she led them and established them in the Lord.
The abbess was an ascetic, a lover of struggle, and prudent. She restored the Holy Monastery of Chrysopigi from ruins, along with its miraculous icon of the Life-Giving Spring, and gave the monastery a spiritual foundation. She also restored the neighboring monastic dependency, the Monastery of St. Kyriaki. In her final years, she sought a more deserted place for the sisterhood. She established the Monastery of the Transfiguration on a rock, under the fatherly care of the venerable Elder Porphyrios.
At the age of forty-eight she became seriously ill with cancer and was miraculously cured by Elder Porphyrios, who had an especial love and respect for her. Ten years later, her sickness returned to her, during the four final years of her life. She accepted her sickness with great courage and perseverance, immense patience, gentleness, and deep peace, unceasingly fulfilling her duties until her final breath.
Her end was a blessed one, as her life had been. She fell asleep in the Lord on the 31st of May 2000, at the age of sixty-two.
Quiet and Hidden
Eldress Theosemni was a model nun, according to the teachings of the Fathers. In everything she did, she combined gifts that are seldom given, with great capability, on both the theoretical and the practical level. She was hard working and energetic, but simultaneously ascetic and hesychastic. By nature quiet and reserved in her relations with people, she was able to hide her great gifts and virtues even from the people around her, and to ascribe successes to others. Although she was very mature, organized, methodical, clever, and observant, she always managed to ascribe the result of any work to everyone involved, as though it was wholly a team effort. In this way, she taught the sisters not to seek after personal glory.
“That which moves me more than anything else,” she would say, “is the example of the Panagia. Her humility, obedience, and silence. An angel went and told her that she would give birth to Christ, God, and all she said was, ‘Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.’ She didn’t say anything else. Only obedience. And she was hidden. My prayer is that we will acquire these virtues….”
The Eldress never believed in her many spiritual gifts. She was marked by a profound humility, not just simple “humble words,” or pietistic comeliness.
She managed the monastery’s affairs without any discord. She had the discernment to know which sister should undertake any given job, or a particular responsibility, and made use of the talents of all. In whichever place or job in the monastery she provided oversight, she was observant enough to know what needed to be fixed or improved, and this always took place with propriety and with a quiet explanation.
The Eldress herself took care of various jobs in the monastery, and did not limit herself to just the fulfillment of the duties of the abbess. She made good use of her time with remarkable creativity.
When she realized that some aspect of the monastery’s work was running behind or was unsuccessful, she got involved herself, without getting upset or uptight, and with her remarkable simplicity saying, “let’s have a look, sisters, with patience, at what other way we can do this….” And, of course, she always found a solution.
The Eldress had immeasurable respect for all of the sisters, and no one ever heard her speak in an offensive manner. Unless she was asked, she did not counsel anyone, and only infrequently would she give her nuns unsolicited counsel. And when she did, she would censure herself, saying that she was not worthy to teach.
Humble, Merciful, and Ascetic
Let us have a humble spirit. May we be careful to never see the sins of others, only our own sins. We, however, want to fix other people, but don’t want to fix ourselves. Eh…does this happen, though? No, we don’t fix ourselves! Our brother is not to blame for whatever happens, our spiritual condition is to blame. It’s this condition of ours that upsets us, which makes us judgmental, which causes us to get angry. We mustn’t blame others for these things. The causes are within us. If we ever do or think something good, let us not regard it as our own achievement, but the achievement of God. And let us say, “You, my God, You gave it to me. It’s yours and You allowed it and gave me the strength to do it.” In this way, we chase thoughts of vainglory far from us.
She had the spiritual gift to administer and direct the sisterhood without getting upset, without raising her voice, without having to check up on, or to threaten by giving her nuns a rule of penance. She generally did not give rules of penance. If she did it on occasion, she was very sad about it, which is why she would be the first to fulfill the rule of penance that she had given to the sister. As abbess, she never accepted special attention or honor.
The Eldress was exceedingly merciful. She loved and honored, without distinction, people in need and in difficult situations. No one left the monastery with empty hands. She did not even overlook those who, for whatever reason, were not able to make it all the way to the monastery. She experienced such great joy when she gave, that she felt like she should be the one giving thanks. “We mustn’t ask anything from people,” she would say, “but we should give them everything.”
The Eldress loved to hide within the sisterhood. She would generally not appear to visitors, especially when large groups would visit the monastery. She always sought to remain far from crowds. While she shared in the people’s pain, and would pray a great deal for their problems, she systematically avoided social contact with them. “This,” she would say, “is the work of the guest master,” and in this way she taught the nuns not to seek social relations and conversations with pilgrims, whether acquaintances or relatives. She would say, characteristically, that “the spiritual life of the monastic progresses through isolation and silence.”
She carefully examined every part of the monastic life and did not ignore anything as though it were unimportant or too detailed. She never allowed herself to make changes, remaining always faithful to the spirit of the Fathers. It is characteristic that she never gave a blessing for a loosening of the fasting regulations unless such a loosening was indicated in the Orologion. Even when she was sick, she kept the fasting rules precisely. On one occasion, she found herself outside of the monastery at the very beginning of Great Lent, for radiation therapy, and she still kept the first three days of Lent with precision [a complete, strict fast], and then had the first round of radiation therapy on Wednesday afternoon of the first week of Lent, after the Presanctified Liturgy.
During her whole period of sickness, despite the insistent requests of the sisters, she never asked for any specific kind of food, but accepted with thanks whatever food she was offered.
“As monastics, we must practice asceticism. We shouldn’t eat until we’re full. We should arise from the dinner table and be hungry; in any case, this is what we promised. Even Christ practiced asceticism. He ate little, he had only one tunic. And He taught his disciples not to have anything. Let us do the same. Asceticism: in food, in sleep, in standing for long periods. Let’s try to do these things and we’ll see what a blessing we have.”
The blessed Eldress Theosemni never protested for anything, to anyone. She regarded martyrdom and being crushed as part and parcel of the monastic life, with the certainty that God allows trials for our salvation.
Full of Love and Untiring Prayer
The Eldress would always cover over the failings of others, she never blamed anyone and never judged, criticized, or complained about someone who had done her wrong or had slandered her. She forgave and loved all people from her heart, effortlessly, which is why everyone felt at ease with her, despite her serious and careful demeanor. For her part, she did not feel as though she was doing anything more than fulfilling the obligations of a nun.
Let us have love. When we reproach someone, we don’t love them. They will only understand through love, not through being gloomy, angry, and judgmental. We’re mistaken if we think that other people have wronged us. The problem is within us. Only let sweet words come from our lips. And if we don’t have anything to say, a smile suffices. Let’s gift others with our smile, with our love. When we don’t love our brethren, we don’t love Christ. It’s no good for us to say we love Christ if we don’t love our brethren.
Humility is to make excuses for our brethren in all things and for all things. The humble person cuts off her own will.
Once, near the end of her earthly life, reference was made to instances where she made remarkable sacrifices and was particularly humble, and she responded laconically, “Sisters, let’s not transform our daily duties into some kind of achievement, if we have at some time, by the grace of God, done something….”
The Eldress struggled for the salvation of the whole world. She prayed unceasingly for the known and unknown, small and large, Christian and non-Christian, for all people.
Most of our prayer should be for the world. We should pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” but this “me” should refer to the whole world. If we pray for others, God gives us more grace than He would have if we were just praying for ourselves. And whatever good things we ask on behalf of others, God also gives to us. Let’s say the prayer continuously. This softens the soul. It makes it soft, so that it loves all people. All people seem good to it and nothing upsets it.
She was once walking down a street in London, after a visit with a professor of oncology, who had just told her that the mass in her lung had returned and that she would have to undergo more therapy. She was thoughtful and, in answer to the question posed by the sister who was with her, as to whether she was upset by the problem of her health, she answered, “No, I have left this concern completely to God. What I was thinking about just now, and it’s for this that I’m concerned, are those young children we met on the corner who were begging. I noticed that they were pale and their hands… oh, my… how their hands were! I feel terrible. I’m afraid that they’re taking drugs. And that girl, how beautifully she played guitar and sang! She also could have sung….”
Patient in Her Sickness
Her serious long-term sickness was a source of pain for everyone else, but not for her. While she suffered, no one noticed any sadness or disappointment on her face or in her words because of the bodily trials and pains she suffered and endured. She continued her life with psychical strength, remarkable patience and meekness, courage and boldness, endless faith and obedience to the will of God. She continuously transmitted to everyone the joy and hope of communion with Christ, and the strength of the foretaste of eternal gifts, which her blessed soul experienced already in this life.
“Let us hymn and glorify God in trials,” she would say, “Let’s not be beggars and only ask things from God, ‘Give me, why won’t you give it to me?’ May our lips be used to glorify God. Let’s not be sullen and self-absorbed. Let’s say a ‘Glory to Thee, oh God!’ We must not forget.”
And referring to her own sickness:
My sisters, don’t be saddened that I’m sick. Think that whatever God gives is for our good. Whatever He allows is for our salvation. Whatever this is…and let us thank Him. Do you know what joy and what peace comes from thanking Him for all things, and from glorifying Him? Submit everything to God. This is the work of a nun: prayer for everything, for everyone. Haven’t you heard what Fr. Porphyrios said, “With joy, leave all things to God.” Let us have our minds constantly on Christ. This is the only way we will be patient in our sorrow and in whatever trials come to us.
The peace that exuded from Eldress Theosemni’s face gave comfort to the insecurities of everyone and her peaceable speech was therapeutic for the souls of those who listened to her. Her whole life was a harmony of spiritual vision, teachings, and action. The Eldress incarnated the humility of the holy Fathers, which is why people near her experienced peace and an otherworldly joy, the same kind that we sense when we are near Saints.
While still in this life, the blessed Eldress had already truly lived the foretaste of heavenly blessedness in silence and humility, and through her repose reconciled people with death. The people that came to Chrysopigi from Crete, from Greece, and from overseas, to pay their last respects and to venerate her relics, all witnessed to the same experience: they described the sweetness and absence of fear that they felt before her relics.
The two days that preceded her burial were a touching experience, full of blessings for everyone, not only for those that knew and loved her, but also for the whole Church. Parents who had lost young children in tragic accidents described with tears how, for the first time, they felt comforted. Others touched their infants to her, as they would to the relics of the Saints. Children both young and old approached her coffin and touched her again and again without fear, for they saw her smiling, as she had unceasingly smiled even when in pain.
The funeral of the blessed Eldress was uncommon. It was a triumphant funeral service, a revelation for everyone, a tangible revelation of the mystery of sanctity. There was no despair and sadness, but victory over death, the joy of the Resurrection. A young person said, “It’s like Holy Friday when we bury Christ with the certainty of tomorrow’s resurrection.” Everyone felt that the reposed Eldress Theosemni had passed to heavenly blessedness from a life in which she had had a foretaste of, and had grown accustomed to, the joyful feeling of immortality. She had experienced this to such an extent that she was able to communicate psychical comfort and the overcoming of sorrows to everyone, along with the reality of the approach of eternity.
The blessed Eldress Theosemni departed in light from the present life, during which she had lived within the perspective of the future age. Her grave had become a source of consolation, hope, and an education in eternal blessedness, not only for the nuns of her monastery, but also for all of the pilgrims, known and unknown, who thronged from near and far. And a story, well-known to the Church, was repeated: of how a person who lived in obscurity and silence became a preacher, an inspirer, and an initiate, not of human words and actions, but of the mystery of eternity.
Striving to Live a Christ-centered Life: Five Reasons to Visit a Monastery By Matushka Constantina Palmer
Introduction: Journeying by boat to visit their beloved spiritual father, , Constantine Palamas – the father of St. Gregory – suddenly realized he and his family had forgotten to bring food with them for the monastery. While his wife and five children looked on, he raised his voice in prayer and put his hand into the sea; immediately he caught a massive fish. Taking it out of the water, he glorified God for the miracle. Out of his great admiration and respect for the monastic life, Constantine Palamas worked a miracle so that his family would not arrive at the monastery empty-handed. In this way, and in countless others, he instilled in the hearts of his children a firm love for and reverence of monasticism.
This practice of going out into the wilderness to seek a word from a holy monastic is a tradition well established in the Church as early as Christ’s own times. St. John the Forerunner was the first monk, and people sought him out, as St. Andrew of Crete testifies: “The Forerunner of grace dwelt in the desert and all Judea and Samaria ran to hear him.” He, like many of our prophets before him, preached amendment of life. The central difference between him and the prophets, however, was that St. John would become the first and greatest “Father of Monasticism.” Generations of monastics would take his way of life, his asceticism, his bold dedication to discipleship to Christ as the epitome of the monastic life, and they would follow him. “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11).
The radical lifestyle of St. John changed the world, especially the Christian world, because many who came after him decided to imitate him and live outside the cities solely for Christ’s sake. Thus, slowly the monastic life was established, and those in the world began to look to it as a shining example of the Christian lifestyle. It is an indisputably great and ancient practice of those living in the world to make pilgrimages to monasteries. Below are five of the many reasons one should.
1. Spiritual Direction
Finding a spiritual guide who has the will and means to guide and direct a believer in his endeavour to live the Gospel precepts in his daily life is not an easy task. It requires prayer and discernment on the part of the seeker, a humble disposition, and an openness to the will of God. This is because once the believer asks a priest or monk to be his spiritual father, he enters into a relationship with that person that cannot easily be dissolved, and which will have everlasting effects on his spiritual life: “A spiritual father… becomes the means of leading the life of men out of hell (by the negative effect of their passions), and into pure Christian life and spiritual freedom.”
Thus, the goal should be to find a spiritual guide who not only preaches Christ, but lives like Christ. As Monk Isaiah wrote to Nun Theodora: “The Holy Spirit is for everyone; but in those who are pure of the passions, who are chaste and live in stillness and silence, He reveals special powers.” This is the primary reason why a person living in the world seeks spiritual direction from those living in monasteries. Not because the Holy Spirit only dwells in those who wear the monastic habit, but because their way of life is far more conducive to acquiring the Holy Spirit. The greatest spiritual guides are those whose manner of life teaches as much or more than their words and advice. If a spiritual guide does not live the commandments of Christ, if he has not experienced temptation, if he does not actively struggle to overcome his passions, then how will he teach others to do likewise? On this point Archmandrite Zacharias of Essex says: “if the word that the spiritual father says is not seasoned with grace, nor proceeds from a heart that is warmed by the love of Christ, it becomes like the work of psychologists or counsellors – a ‘half-blind’ worldly activity. The word of the spiritual father must bear the seal of grace, the seasoning of grace.”
The life of the monk is a macrocosm of the Christian life in the world. And so, it follows that if there are good spiritual fathers in the world, there are great spiritual fathers in the monastery. The reason for this is very simple, as St. Nikodemus states: “monastics, through ascetic struggles and through the monastic way of life, first purified themselves (from the passions and from faults) and then set out to purify others: they were first enlightened and afterwards enlightened others: they were first perfected, and then perfected others, they were, to express it concisely, first made holy and afterwards made others holy…”
For those who have spiritual fathers in the world, they need not forsake them for a priest-monk. They can, however, with the blessing of their spiritual father, seek the counsel of a monastic in certain circumstances that require the guidance of an experienced and specialized “doctor” since, as St. Zosimas says to St. Mary of Egypt: “Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit.”
And in fulfilling the instructions of one’s spiritual guide, the layman becomes a candidate for the grace which is for the saints (2 Cor. 8:4). By this, one becomes like a certain youth who, living in the world, “began immediately, with great eagerness, to fulfill the command which the elder had given him… With this work that he did, he was made worthy to lift his mind up to Heaven, where he cried out to the Mother of Christ for compassion; and through her intercessions, he was atoned before God and there came down upon him the Grace of the Holy Spirit….” Ultimately, this is the goal of seeking spiritual direction: to not only be “atoned before God” through a life of repentance, but through the counsels and prayers of one’s spiritual guide – who himself has attained grace – to have the Holy Spirit “come down upon us.”
2. Spiritual Conversation and Action
One of the greatest benefits of visiting a monastery is the spiritual conversation and activity pilgrims are able to take part in. At a monastery, spiritual stories and uplifting anecdotes abound. Although many monastics shy away from conversation with pilgrims for a variety of reasons, given the appropriate circumstance a conversation with a monastic can rear a multitude of benefits – not to mention conversations with fellow pilgrims.
Whether they share a story they have heard, wisdom from the Mothers and Fathers of the Church, or even a tale from that monastery, their words inform and enlighten the pilgrim and help refocus his busy mind. Even time relaxing in the world does not refresh the soul the way a spiritual conversation does. This type of conversation, though found more rarely in the world, is often a common occurrence at a monastery.
Furthermore, many monastics, despite not living in the world any longer or dealing with its struggles and temptations, have great wisdom to share. Not only did they also once live in darkness (Matt. 4:16), but they have a wealth of experience from speaking with pilgrims who confide in them. Through prayer and reading, the monastic manages to help the pilgrim approach his problems with a bit more clarity and even a new perspective.
Coupled with this beneficial spiritual conversation is the spiritual activity that takes place in a monastery. Work and prayer are two primary tenets of the monastic life. Work, however, is done in a slightly different spirit than work done in the world. An Abbess at a monastery not far from Thessaloniki has often said work in a monastery is a great deed because it is done solely for the love of God, and the love of His saint, the monastery’s patron. She teaches that to even pick up a piece of garbage in a monastery yields a great heavenly reward because it is done in honour of the saint, to keep his house clean. After helping with work in the monastery, she would tell the pilgrims: “The patron saint wrote down the work you have done, and you will find it presented on the Day of Judgement.”
When a monastic bakes bread, he bakes for the glory of God. When he chants in church, he chants for the glory of God. When he sweeps, he does so for the glory of God. And when a pilgrim partakes of such God-honouring work, he begins to look at his own work in a different light, just as the monastic offers all his work for the glory of God, so too can the pilgrim – both while at the monastery, and when he returns to his work in the world. The Christian home is a microcosm of the coenobitic monastery; when the mother, father, or children clean the house, they too can do so for the glory of God.
Both the monastic and the pilgrim can approach work the way Abba Apollo did: “If someone came to find him about doing a piece of work, he would set out joyfully, saying, ‘I am going to work with Christ today, for the salvation of my soul, for that is the reward he gives.’” The only difference between the monastic’s work in the monastery and the layman’s work in the world is that the monastic knows that he left behind his own success to seek the Kingdom of God; the layman merely needs a reminder now and again. He needs to ask himself which of the following he is and who he desires to glorify: “The man who loves himself seeks his own glory, whereas the man who loves God loves the glory of his Creator.”
The fallen human soul is predisposed toward pride. This is something that occurs with the monastic as much as with the layman. When the Christian keeps his prayer rule faithfully, observes the fasts of the Church, or attends church services regularly, the soul is inclined to become puffed up. The antidote is finding better examples than oneself of Christian dedication to remind the proud soul that she is lacking in virtue.
The layman has the ability to make pilgrimages to monasteries and so finds a helpful means to stay grounded in his spiritual life. Encountering monastics reminds the pilgrim that there are better Christians than himself (not that he cannot also learn this in the parish, he most certainly can, but it is an indisputable fact that one is faced with at a monastery). Hence the famous statement: “Angels are a light for monastics, and monastics are a light for the world.” The monastic is simultaneously humbled and enlightened by reading the lives of the saints, just as the layman is when he compares his life with that of a monastic.
Humility is a virtue that the monastic and layman ought to strive for above all else, for as St. John Cassian says, “Humility of soul helps more than everything else; without it no one can overcome lewdness or any other sin.” And so, the layman makes pilgrimages to monasteries in order to draw the soul away from the distracting world and into an environment of stillness and prayer, where the atmosphere is conducive to taking stock of one’s life alongside that of a dedicated monastic, and to allow the grace of the monastery to help him see his own sinfulness.
The following story, taken from The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, illustrates this point: There were three friends, all of whom chose different means of work. The first decided to become a peace-maker among men. The second decided to tend to the sick. While the third decided to live in prayer and stillness in the desert. The first two friends found that they were unable to complete the work they set out to do and became disheartened. So they decided to visit their third friend who was living in the stillness of prayer. They confessed their difficulties and asked for guidance. This was the third friend’s response: “After a short silence, he poured some water into a bowl and said to them, ‘Look at the water,’ and it was disturbed. After a little while he said to them again, ‘Look how still the water is now,’ and as they looked into the water, they saw their own faces reflected in it as in a mirror. Then he said to them, ‘It is the same for those who live among men; disturbances prevent them from seeing their faults. But when a man is still, especially in the desert, then he sees his failings.’”
And so it is with the pilgrim from the world. In the stillness of the monastery, he is able to reflect on his failings. Whether it be in comparing his spiritual life with the monastic who left all things behind to live “alone with God alone,” as Elder Porphyrios was wont to say, or simply due to slowing down and reflecting on his faults, the pilgrim returns to the world with greater humility of soul.  St. Theodora, Matericon, 85.
The command to imitate Christ is found throughout the Gospels. He is the image of perfect obedience, extreme humility, utter chastity, and a life of poverty. To be sure, if a believer only ever read the Gospels, he would be informed on how to live a proper Christian life. However, because man is weak and in need of examples, the monastic life illustrates the Gospel commandments lived out to their perfection. Thus the layman has before him a pragmatic example of how the teachings of the Lord are upheld and practiced. In turn, he emulates those things in an appropriate and prudent way, just as St. Paul encourages: “what ye learned and received and heard and saw in me, these things be practising; and the God of peace shall be with you” (Phill. 4:9).
There is much to be learned and gained from spiritual books, practical guides, and the wisdom of the desert Fathers and Mothers. However, nothing compares to the spiritual benefit brought about by actually being around someone who shares in the grace of God in a deep and intimate way. For whether or not he has “the words of life,” his prayer, his patience, and his virtue are enough to form and inform the humble-hearted that seek his unique, if silent, wisdom. Abba Dorotheos writes: “It is said that a certain brother asked an elder, ‘What shall I do, father, in order to fear God?’ The elder answered, ‘Go and cling to a man who fears God and from the fact that he fears Him, he will teach you to do likewise.’”
Laymen are called to keep the commandments of the Gospel with as much precision as monastics. The monk is not called to one type of life, and the layman to another. No, they are both called to “be perfect even as my Father in heaven who is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), just as St. John Chrysostom taught: “You greatly delude yourself and err, if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk; since the difference between them is in that whether one is married or not, while in everything else they have the same responsibilities… Because all must rise to the same height; and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest are allowed to live a life of indolence.”
The only difference between a Christian living in the world and a monastic living in a monastery is that monasticism “rejects any kind of compromise and seeks the absolute”, whereas the layman struggles as best he can in the midst of the distracting world. Both are acceptable and blessed in the eyes of God. Both ways are only successful by the grace of God. The layman should not be disheartened by his struggles in “the darkness of the world” (Eph. 6:12). Rather, he should take courage that he is upheld by the prayers of countless monastics, as Bishop Nikolai of Lavreot has stated: “The life of the faithful is supported by the prayers of the monks. This is elucidated by the very fact that the faithful take refuge in such prayers. Just as Moses stretched out his hands and the Israelites conquered the Amalekites, so the monastics lift up their hands to God and we, the faithful who are struggling in the wilderness of this world, conquer the noetic Amalek.” And more significantly, the layman should take courage that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20).
5. Encountering Sacred Place
Even if there were no other reason for visiting a monastery, there would remain this one: it is an agios topos, a holy place. “And Moses said, I will go near and see this great sight, why the bush is not consumed. And when the Lord saw that he drew nigh to see, the Lord called him out of the bush, saying, Moses, Moses… loose thy sandals from off thy feet for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3: 3-5).
Coupled with the prayers of the monastics, the saints that dwell within the monastery, and the angels that protect it, there are also at least one or more chapels. The presence of a temple of God alone is enough to sanctify a place. And it is in this sanctified place that even without hearing God-inspired words or witnessing miraculous events, the pilgrim is refreshed. His weary and tired body and soul are nourished with more than monastic fare – they are nourished with monastic stillness.
A pilgrim once asked a priest-monk why it was that out of all the monasteries the pilgrim had visited, this one particular well-known monastery was the one in which grace and divine fragrance was the most perceivable. The priest-monk answered that although all monasteries are holy, that that monastery held the typikon to celebrate Divine Liturgy every single day, and confessed people for hours on end, and so as a result it attracted the grace of the Holy Spirit and He dwelt there. As Dr. Constantine Carvanos surmises, “[t]hrough confession at these centers of spirituality, through participation in the moving services of the monks or nuns, and speaking with them, a Christian living in the world is aided by calm refuge from his worldly cares, by being purified, by rediscovering himself, and by tasting of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”
St. Nikolai Velimirovich records: “When [St. David of Garesja] arrived at a hill from which Jerusalem was visible, [he] began to weep and said, ‘How can I be so bold to walk in the footsteps of the God-man with my sinful feet?’ David then told his disciples that they, being more worthy, should go to worship at the holy places, and he took three stones and began to return.” The saint’s humility was so great that he considered the sight of the Holy Land and even its pebbles to be overflowing with grace. How much more does the grace of a sacred place exceed sight and stones? In this sense the words of St. Theodora hold an even greater significance: “Love stillness. One who is not attached to the vanities of this world is strengthened in soul by stillness, abstinence and silence.” This strength, harnessed by the grace of a sacred place, can then be brought back into the world if treasured and safeguarded through prayer and watchfulness.
In conclusion, “if you want to know if someone loves Christ, find out if he loves monasticism,” as the saying goes. Visit monasteries, acquire humble-mindedness, and abstain from judging others – both the believer who is too lax and he who is too strict. “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).
All photos that appear in this article belong to Nektarios and are used with permission.
 The Great Canon of Repentance, Song 9, .
 Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, 174.
 Monk Isaiah to Honourable Nun Theodora, Matericon, 160.
 Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, 174.
 St. Nikodemos, Handbooks of Counsel [Greek], 15-16.
 St. Symeon the New Theologian, from Dr. Constantine Carvanos’ article A Discourse for those living in the world, Orthodox Info:http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/discourselivingworld.aspx.
 Abba Apollo, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 36.
 Philokalia, St. Diadochos of Photiki: “On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination: One Hundred Texts”, vol. 1, , 255.
 St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, op. cit., 128.
 Abba Dorotheos, Practical teaching on the Christian life, “On the Fear of God,” , 113.
 St. John Chrysostom, Pros piston patera (To the faithful father) 3, 14, PG47, 372- 74.
 Professor Georgios Mantzarides, Images of Athos by monk Chariton,http://www.stanthonysmonastery.org/monasticism.php
 Constantine Carvanos, Discourse on those living in the world, Orthodox Info:http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/discourselivingworld.aspx.
 St. Nikolai Velimirovitch, Prologue, May 27.
 St. Theodora, Matericon, 85.
By Matushka Constantina Palmer
Source: Lessons from a Monastery (wordpress.com)
“The climate on the island of Thassos suited her better than in Portaria, so I moved her there. She gradually drew near to the end of her life. Two years before her death, at the age of 92, she was paralyzed. From that time she didn’t completely raise herself from her bed. But, glory to God, as the Gospel says: And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life (Mt. 19:29).
This is what happened with my mother: during her illness she was surrounded by caring daughters—the sisters of the monastery who took care of her with great zeal. And where in the world will you find such love now?! Her nurse, one of the sisters of the monastery, so loved my mother that there are no words! She was so nice, so kind, and even slept together with her, head to head…
When a crisis came during my mama’ illness, something happened which happens very rarely, but when it happens it’s only with spiritual people for the sake of testing them and for gaining experience. It happened one night. Mama was as if dead already several days—she didn’t eat, didn’t drink, and didn’t open her eyes. She didn’t drink a single drop of water. She was dehydrated, with closed eyes—how dying people usually look…
When she was in such a state I was there with her, together with the nun-nurses and Gerontissa. It was dark, lampadas were burning. The night before, at about the same time, her eyes opened at some point. She opened her eyes and looked around, as if she was expecting something to happen or that already happened, with some kind of uneasiness, as if listening to something, or seeing something or someone. This was the first time after being unconscious for so many days that she showed some attention to the world around her. Lying, because she was unable to move, with open eyes, she looked all around, to the right, left, up, and down. And as the moments flowed by, her face more strongly revealed a state of terrible agony and terrible fear—a whole river of fear. I saw such fear reflected on her face as when some killer is drawing near with a knife, ready to cut you.
I began to cover her with the sign of the Cross, repeating aloud the Jesus Prayer to calm her. I understood that what was happening was a demonic temptation. After a while the danger passed, and the invisible powers departed. Mama calmed down, and she was still conscious. Then I asked her: ‘Mama, what happened? What’s with you’—‘Oh… so many, they are so many!’ And from that moment mama began to pray: ‘O Mother of God, save me! O Mother of God, save me!’ Day and night! From that point her mouth never stopped. Day and night she besought salvation from the Mother of God.
It is striking that she had no thoughts, only prayer—sick people usually easily succumb to thoughts. By her way of life—constant podvigs and labors—mama acquired exceptional patience, and this patience helped her maintain prayer this whole time. I asked her: ‘What happened?’—‘The Mother of God helps me!’ And again the prayer continued: ‘O Mother of God, save me! O Mother of God, save me!’
After some time, when the torment was over, she completely calmed down and shut her eyes. The next day at the exact same time her eyes again opened. The same fear and agony was again displayed on her face. The exact same scenario happened again. It was all quite excruciating.
Then I wondered: why does the devil have authority over this holy soul? I, of course, understood that this temptation was allowed so she could obtain a crown, that through this ordeal she could acquire boldness before God. And at some point, when she was in such a state, I said to myself: ‘It’s not fitting that this should continue. It’s time to end this.’ I went to my cell, got on my knees and began to pray: ‘O Lord, I beg Thee, do one of two things. Either take her right now, that she could have peace already, because she is worthy of peace, or banish the devil away from this holy soul. She has already labored for Thee so much, and now her time for rest has arrived.’ This is how I prayed.
When her eyes opened again the next day at the same time, she was calm. ‘Mama, how are you?’—‘They left…’ The trial was over. From that very moment began the blessed final period of her blessed life. Days passed in this blessed state. Her appearance gradually changed, she became more and more beautiful. Of course, this beauty was not physical, but spiritual. I wanted to photograph her. The grace in her was clearly apparent. Thus she gradually drew nearer to death.”
“I saw how her soul ascended unhindered to Heaven”
“The following year, after Nativity, in Christmastide, I went to the monastery to see her again,” continues Elder Ephraim’s narration. “She spoke and understood what was happening, and unceasingly repeated the prayer. In the final moments of her life her face was transfigured, blessedness shining upon it. She turned to the right, revealing her widely shining eyes and glanced off to the side as if she saw something there. In that moment I felt such Paschal joy in my soul, such resurrection, as if I had suddenly gathered the grace of ten Paschal nights.
It was the first time I felt this in my life. Of course, when my elder Joseph departed to the Lord there was something special then too, but here it happened with my own relative. I felt such happiness at that moment, and also felt and saw … I don’t know, in what manner it happened, but I saw how her soul ascended unhindered to Heaven.
When the doctor arrived he couldn’t believe that she had already died—she looked so alive. Her body was warm and soft, like the body of someone living. ‘Lord, have mercy! I can’t believe it!’ the doctor exclaimed. It was incorruption. I told the doctor that Christ said: death is but a dream, and every person will awaken on the day of the Second Coming at the sound of the archangel’s trump.
When the doctor left, we sewed her up in a monastic habit, with three crosses sewed on top. Meanwhile I continued to feel such strong Paschal joy, that I wanted to go out on the street and sing ‘Christ is Risen!’ She was so beautiful after death. She was 95, but she looked like she was 15. It was the result of her whole life, all her labors; it was a reward for all her labors.”
Her relics were found to be “very beautiful”
The sisters of the monastery told me that when Gerontissa Theophano’s coffin was carried to the monastery cemetery, sheep came and doves flew over. The sheep managed to get themselves out of their pen, ran to the grave, all bleating at the same time, and turned around and ran back to their pen. Then from somewhere above their appeared a flock of doves which flew over the grave and disappeared into the heights.
Her relics were found to be “very beautiful.” In Greece the tradition still exists of taking bones around the third year after death and placing them in an ossuary—not only on Athos but in other monasteries and even among the laity in regular cemeteries. By the color and smell of the relics you can hypothesize about the postmortem state of the soul of the departed. For example, there are cases when the body does not dissolve, or the relics emit a foul odor—then it is considered that things are bad for the soul of the departed and it stands in need of prayerful help. Family members begin to order forty-day prayers for the dead and distribute alms for the repose of the soul. There are particular signs by which you can know that the soul of the departed found grace from the Lord: an amber color to the relics and a sweet fragrance emanating from them. It even happens that the relics of some Orthodox acquire incorruptibility.
So, when they opened Gerontissa Theophano’s grave, her relics were fragrant and had the most amber color, by which it could be determined that her soul found salvation. A reliquary was made for her head which is now kept in the Monastery of the Archangel Michael on the island of Thassos.
Through the prayer of holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us!