A Holy Man’s Christmas Card

nativity-icon-5Paraskevi, who out of sheer humility does not wish to reveal her full name, was among the first spiritual children of Elder Sophrony, during the time of her studies in England. She sent us a copy of two handwritten scripts by the blessed Elder.

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A good wish card which the blessed Elder sent during Christmas 1967, when Paraskevi was going through some difficult times because of the illness of a close relative.

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 The outside of the card

The Christmas wish card (handwritten):

Archimandrite Sophrony

The Old Rectroy,Tolleshent Knight

by Maldon, Essex

Christmass 1967,

+

Dear beloved in Christ, Sister Paraskevi.

May the Lord’s grace and peace be abundant in you. Let me first wish you Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!

Paraskevi, has it ever happened to do something according to my blessing and it turned out harmful? Or has it happened that you did something according to your mind and not according to my humble advice that it was successful and in accordance with God’s providence? Therefore, now you must listen to me, the old fool, and do as I give you the blessing to do. The only beneficial way for you and your relatives is to finish your studies and work at the same time, as my monks do from morning till the evening. Get rid of any worry for X and your family.

The unworthy Arch. Sophrony.

You have the love of all who are at out monastery.

***

christmas-card3

Handwritten inscription by the Elder on the 15th August 1975, when he sent her his book, St Silouan the Athonite

On the book St Silouan the Athonite (handwritten):

To my beloved in Christ sister Paraskevi with warm wishes and love

Arch. Sophrony

15th August 1975

Printed in Caps:

Hailing from various countries

And retreating to the Mountain,

Among the holy fathers of Mount Athos,

Escaping the unnatural

And safeguarding the natural

Rising to that which is beyond nature

Again, by hand of Elder Sophrony:

From the Holy Spirit gashes out love, and without it no one is able to know God ‘as He must be known’.

E.S. p. 443

(Note: E.S. refer to Elder Silouan, not yet recognized as a Saint at the time)

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Belonging to Neither and Both

Belonging to Neither and Both In the Middle Between the World and Monasticism From the Letters of St. Ambrose of Optina

An Elder’s Correspondence to his Spiritual Daughter Caught Between the World and the Monastery (*)

January 3, 1879

In our last letter of December 14, you wrote that you cannot find any books applicable to your situation. You say that all books discuss monasticism, and that you are not a nun but are simply living near a monastery. In response I would say this to you: the Gospel teaching is given to everyone in common, and everyone is obliged to fulfill it. Monasticism stemmed from the desire to live exactly according to the Gospel teaching. This is terribly difficult amidst the noise of the city and the cares of life in the world, which hinder such a precise fulfillment of the Gospel teaching, even though everyone is called to this. Monastics are distinguished from laymen in that the latter are permitted to live in a state of matrimony, while the former choose to remain unmarried. Read more often the Gospel of Matthew, from the beginning of the fifth chapter to the end of the tenth, and try to live according to what is written there. Then your life will be marked by harmony, and you will find peace of soul.

January 11, 1879

Peace to you and God’s blessing, and a strengthening towards good. On January 3 I briefly wrote to you that monastic life by no means differs from the Gospel teaching, and that those living in the world differ from monastics only as concerns their married state. About married people, however, St. John of the Ladder writes that they are like those whose hands and feet are bound with fetters. Although even these can walk the path of righteousness, it is only with difficulty; they often stumble and fall and become sorely wounded as a result. The unmarried–and particularly monastic–state offers greater facility in the fulfillment of the Gospel teaching. It is for this reason that monasticism was established by the Holy Fathers.

You are now in the middle, between the world and monasticism (*). The middle path is everywhere approved, and for you–both on account of your upbringing and your weak constitution–it is in many ways appropriate. Only try to live according to the Gospel commandments. Above all, judge no one about anything, so that you yourself will not be judged …..

In my letters I’ve always had one aim –to dispel your misconceptions about monasticism and spiritual life in general, which you formed while still living in the world. You have perhaps heard it said that even apparently correct theory does not always coincide with practice. One’s own experience, when it follows the experience of spiritual people in the past, is a good instructor, provided we check our life against the Biblical and patristic teaching.

You laid for yourself and your life a rather strange foundation: I wanted so, I thought so, I intended so… You are not the only one; many desire a good spiritual life in the simplest form. Few, however, (they are rare, in fact) fulfill their good desires in actuality; they are those who hold tightly the words of Holy Scripture: “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), and who, entreating the help of God, try to bear the griefs and illnesses and various discomforts visited upon them without murmuring, always keeping in remembrance the words of the Lord Himself: If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. (Matt. 19:17)

And the most important of these commandments are: “Judge not and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:17). Besides this, those who want to be saved must bear in mind the words of St. Peter Damascene, that salvation is accomplished between fear and hope…

To live in a simple hut without humbling oneself will not lead to any good. It is better for someone who is weak in soul and body to live in a comfortable cell and to humble himself, blaming and reproaching himself for such comfortable and spacious quarters. Only few, and those possessing a strong constitution, can without harm lead an austere life, and endure cold and hunger and dampness and sleeping on the ground. According to the words of St. John Damascene, those who are weak in body derive more profit from humility and thanksgiving than from physical labors and podvigs to which they are unequal.

You are adversely affected by the harsh words of such people who, in your opinion, should speak differently. St. John Climacus writes that God providentially leaves some flaws even in spiritual people so as to bring them to humility.

If you wish to set yourself on a firm path toward salvation, try above all to pay heed to yourself alone, and leave everyone else to God’s Providence and their own will, and don’t concern yourself with instructing anyone. Not in vain is it said: Each man begetteth himself shame or glory according to his deeds. This will be most beneficial, meat conducive to salvation, and, what’s more, more peaceful.

From the Letters of St. Ambrose of Optina

(*)  *Sigh* It is so me …

See also Marriage or Monasticism? and Sanctifying the Single Life

If I Perish

if I perish.jpg

Esther Ahn Kim

If I Perish

Korea 1929

Esther Ahn Kim walked slowly up the hill to the shrine, with her students following silently behind her. The young teacher knew that when she arrived at the place of worship she would be forced to make a life-altering choice. The Japanese, who had taken control of Korea, were forcing everyone to bow at the shrine of their “sun god.” The punishment for refusing was imprisonment, torture and possibly even death. Fearing for their lives, many Christians had already given in to the Japanese soldier’s demands. And now it was Esther’s turn to make her decision. She fixed her eyes on the vast sky beyond the hills and thought of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, when they were commanded to bow to the statue of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. The three young men had decided that even if God did not choose to save them from the burning fire, they would die honoring Him.

At that moment, Esther knew what she would do. Even though so many other Christians had decided that outwardly bowing to the idol was acceptable as long as they continued to worship Christ in their hearts, Esther could make no such compromise. She would not bow to any other but the one true God. Defying the Japanese warlords would most likely mean torture and imprisonment, but Esther decided that she would not live her youthful life for herself. She would offer it fully to her Prince, Jesus Christ. She said a silent prayer to Him. Today on the mountain, before the large crowd, I will proclaim that there is no other god but You, she declared.

christian persecution orthodox city hermit

Esther’s group was the last to arrive at the shrine. A huge crowd had gathered, standing in straight, respectful lines, afraid to move because of the cruel gazes of the Japanese policemen. A few of the authorities eyed Esther and her students with disapproval as they joined the rest of the worshipers. Esther’s heart began to pound with dread for what she was about to do. A sense of uneasiness swept over her, and she silently repeated the Lord’s Prayer over and over. Lord, she prayed, I am so weak! Please help me do this— watch over me as I stand for You.

“Attention!” came the commanding voice of one of the officials. The crowd stood in silence and submission. “Our profoundest bow to Amaterasu Omikami!” As he shouted the words, the entire group bent the upper half of their bodies, bowing solemnly before the shrine. Esther was the only one who remained standing, looking up at the sky. The fear and uncertainty that had gripped her just moments before had vanished. Calmness and peace flooded her. She had done what she knew God wanted her to do. On the long walk back to the school, Esther continued her dialogue with God. I have done what I should have done, she told Him. Now, I commit the rest to You. I died today on that mountain—now it is only You who lives through me. I leave everything in Your hands.

For several months, Esther lived in hiding. She knew it was only a matter of time before she was found and imprisoned for the stand that she had taken against the Japanese. But instead of cowering in fear and worry about what her future held, she decided to prepare her heart and her body to suffer for Christ. Just as Paul said, “I buffet my body and make it my servant,” (1 Cor 9:27) Esther decided to train for prison life, just as an athlete might train for competitive sports. She counted it a great honor to suffer for Christ, but she also knew she was weak and unready for all that lay ahead.

If I Perish

“I knew it would be impossible for me to keep my faith in my own power,” Esther wrote later. “God would have to work through me if I was to stand firm. I decided to fast.” Many times before, Esther had fasted for three days without difficulty. Now, she was determined to go without food or drink while she prayed for an entire week. The fast was extremely difficult. By the sixth and seventh day Esther’s lips were dry and her chest was in an iron vise, causing her to fight to breathe. But when the fast was finally over and water was poured into her mouth, she raised her hands in victory, thanking God for being with her.

“Although I had not expected it, after the fast I was able to understand the Scriptures better and I felt a new power in my prayer. Now I felt I could leave the fear of torture in the Lord’s hands.”

More time went by and more fearful news of prison life reached Esther’s ears. As anxiety crept back in, she fasted once more – this time for ten days.

“Again I found a peace I had never known before,” she wrote. “I read the Bible earnestly and had a new concern to memorize important chapters against the day when I would be in prison without my Bible.”

Esther also began sleeping on the floor, learning to live in a state of poverty, and going without all the comforts she had grown up with, so that she would be prepared for the harsh conditions of prison. When she went to the market to buy produce, she bought ripe fruit for her family members but rotten fruit for herself. When her mother and sister saw the decaying food she selected for herself, they cried, but soon they understood. This was the kind of food Esther would be forced to eat in prison.

Months of faithful, diligent preparation—fasting, memorizing Scripture, tirelessly praying, and training to endure harsh conditions – transformed Esther from a weak, frail, faltering young woman to a bold and confident ambassador for Christ. Instead of fearing torture, she now faced it boldly in the power and grace of God.

Esther felt God calling her to come out of hiding and boldly proclaim the truth of the Gospel among the Japanese. She knew that this would likely lead to her death, but she was determined to follow the Lamb wherever He led her.

Her courageous stand for Christ led to six harrowing years in Japanese prisons. During that time, though her body grew week with suffering, she shone with supernatural love toward her persecutors and fellow prisoners. Even through torture, she refused to deny the name of Christ. Her astounding example of “suffering hardship as a good solider for Christ” brought many into the Kingdom who would never have heard the Gospel otherwise. After she was released, the story of her imprisonment and unwavering faith became the all-time religious bestseller in Korea, inspiring countless thousands to stand strong in their faith.

If I perish Taking up our Cross orthodox city hermit

Gleaning From Esther’s Example

Modern Christianity often encourages us to chase after achievements and accolades; to develop skills and pursue accomplishments that will be applauded and esteemed by this world. Some even go so far as to say that the more impressive we are to pop-culture, the greater our witness for Christ will be. The hip, trendy, pop-culture style of many modern worship services illustrate how far we have come from the days of the apostles, when Paul proclaimed, “If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity.” (2 Cor. 11:20)

Though Paul had plenty of human skills and achievements he could have emphasized or built upon, he chose to treat those things as “rubbish.” (Phil 3:8) His greatest accomplishments; his most powerful witness, came from the incredible suffering he endured for Christ’s sake: “Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…” (2 Cor. 11:27-29).

And so it was in the life of Esther Ahn Kim. It wasn’t her accomplishments, personality, money, or skills that caused the nation of Korea to be forever changed. It was her shining example of suffering for Christ’s sake.

One time in prison, her arms were handcuffed behind her back for days until she passed out from the relentless pain. The intent was to torture her until she finally denied Christ. But even though her mind and body were broken, her spirit remained strong, rooted and grounded in Truth. She would not relent, no matter how horrible the pain became. She emerged from the torture victorious in her faith.

Another time, she gave up her meager prison food for several days to a woman who was filthy, insane, and sentenced to death for murdering her husband. Instead of being repulsed by the woman as all the other prisoners were, Esther prayed relentlessly for her, sacrificing her own comforts to reach the woman’s heart. The woman died in her right mind, knowing Jesus Christ, with a hope and a future.

Such sacrifice and personal suffering for Christ’s sake is only possible through the supernatural grace of God. Only one who has truly given up everything to follow Jesus can exude such grace in the face of such hardship.

Esther’s story challenges me to ask the question – am I prepared to suffer for Jesus Christ? In the midst of our comfortable … lifestyles, it’s easy to think, “Of course, if persecution came, I would never deny the name of Christ. Of course if I were thrown into prison, I’d remain strong in my faith.”

But we must ask ourselves – are we truly “dying to self” daily, as Esther did, or are we more concerned with protecting our own comforts and interests than in consecrating our lives fully to Jesus Christ? The only way to be a true follower of Christ is to willingly give up everything; to take up our cross and follow Him (Matt. 10:38, Lk. 9:23).

… We will never gain Esther Ahn Kim’s version of supernatural boldness and sacrificial love by coddling our own self interests and protecting our own comforts. … We are not walking the narrow way of the cross anymore. We are merely living selfish lives with a “Christian label” over them.

Esther Ahn Kim counted the cost of following Jesus – not only on the day when she refused to bow at the shrine, but every day thereafter. She counted the cost when she willingly and gladly gave up comforts and trained her body to endure hardship for the sake of Christ. She counted the cost when she came out of hiding and boldly proclaimed the Gospel among the Japanese who had the power to torture and kill her. She counted the cost when, in prison, she endured horrible misery rather than deny her faith in Christ. She counted the cost when she sacficially loved a filthy, repulsive woman and gave of what little she had in order to win her to Christ. Esther’s life was no longer her own—and every outward decision she made reflected that inner reality. If you desire to do “big things” for God—ask yourself today whether you have truly counted the cost of following Christ.

Many of us think that in order to prepare for an effective ministry, we must gain a large following, write a book, gain worldly accolades, or make a lot of money. But the best way to prepare for a world-changing ministry is to ‘die’ – so that Christ may live through us. Remember that Paul had every reason to boast in his earthly accomplishments, and yet he threw them aside as worthless and counted his suffering for Christ’s sake as his greatest, most important acheivments. (See 2 Cor. 11:30 and Phil. 3:8.)

When self is at the center of our lives, the only impact we will have on this world will be shallow and human-scripted rather than eternal and God-scripted. We may make a temporary splash, but if we do not take up our cross and truly follow Him, we will never reflect the supernatural radiance and grace of Heaven.

If I perish Taking up our Cross orthodox city hermit

Taking up our Cross

… It may take a few days, weeks, or months for those old habits to fully die. But if you allow Him to re-train your daily decisions and enable you to “deny yourself, pick up your Cross, and follow Him” you will soon understand from firsthand experience what Paul meant when he said, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20)

This world needs more young women like Esther Ahn Kim—young women who unreservedly take up their cross and follow Him, no matter what the cost. May it be our greatest desire to follow such a path, and joyfully suffer any hardship for the One who gave everything to us. The world will never be the same when they encounter such a life.

*Story of Esther Ahn Kim taken from If I Perish by Esther Ahn Kim

The Mystery of Tomorrow

A dear sister in Christ, a nun in a Greek monastery, recommended Mother Gavrilia’s book to me a month ago, to study again, and draw inspiration and courage and faith in my poor, little missionary endeavours, by that Missionary and Unmercenary Giant. I am so grateful for this Holy Mother and her book. I have had it for many years and read it many times. Each time it goes deeper, deeper. I am reading this again after many years of traveling and the book was packed away. She always, through the message of the Holy Spirit-alive in her, has a word or two about my/your struggles. Especially now. I feel her so close to my side. Mother Gavrilia is such a role model in her fearlessness, her humility and obedience to God’s Will, her dedication to the service of all mankind, her Faith! May we have her blessing!

 

A poem in the book touched my heart so deeply: 

 

THOU HAST made me known to friends

whom I knew not.

Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own.

 

Thou hast brought the distant near

and made a brother of the stranger.

I am uneasy at heart

when I have to leave my accustomed shelter;

I forget that there abides the old in the new,

and that there also thou abidest.

 

Through birth and death,

in this world or in others,

wherever thou leadest me, it is thou the same,

the one companion of my endless life,

who ever linkest my heart

with bonds of joy to the unfamiliar.

 

When one knows thee,

then alien there is none,

then no door is shut.

 

Oh, grant me my prayer

that I may never lose the bliss

of the touch of the one

in the play of the many.

 

 [R. Tagore, Gitanjali, LXIII]

This poem, dated March 24, 1964, exactly ten years after she was “reborn”, was found among her papers. On the top of that page, she made the sign of the Cross

ic xc ni ka

and added:

24-3-1954

Athens-Israel-Cyprus-Lebanon-Jordan-Syria-Iraq-Iran-Pakistan-INDIA

24-3-1964

Jordan-Greece-Turkey-France-Switzerland-USA-France-Belgium-Danemark-Sweden-Germany-Greece-Lebanon-INDIA

 

Arvo Pärt – And then came the evening and the morning (1990)

 

 Mother gavrilia orthodox pilgrim missionary

“God is Love” … and Mother Gavrilia‘s entire life, which was a hymn to the Lord, became thanks to Him, a burnt offering, a holocaust to His Love.

 

mother-gavrilia orthodox pilgrim missionary

 

“Only one thing do I know that I have always, and it is not pride, nor fantasy, but that which I have day and night, wherever I find myself–three things: first, Faith; second, Faith; third, Faith. That’s all! Nothing else can I say to you. It has directed all my life.”

 

 

Keep Your Mind in Hell and Despair Not

Not for the faint of heart!

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“No one on this earth can avoid affliction; and although the afflictions which the Lord sends are not great men imagine them beyond their strength and are crushed by them. This is because they will not humble their souls and commit themselves to the will of God.”

 

These words seem to sum up soberingly D. Balfour’s tumultuous life, and indeed in so many respects ours…

 

SPEECHLESS! “It seems ludicrous to rate a book like this according to a certain amount of stars…I searched for it after reading the book I Know a Man in Christ — a great book about our holy and blessed Elder Sophrony, which mentions this correspondence with the amazing Englishman David Balfour. I imagine that the only reason why anyone would be interested in this book would be to learn about this incredible spiritual friendship. (No! There are so many more reasons to want to study this book) And this book does allow for that — and much more besides. I’ve read letters of spiritual direction before. These letters go way beyond that. They give insights to the Elder and to St. Silouan which are simply impossible to convey otherwise. And this David Balfour — he went from Catholic hieromonk to Orthodox hieromonk to British Army major and intelligence officer to diplomatic interpreter to midlife husband and father to Oxford Byzantine scholar in old age. A biography of him wouldn’t go amiss, although I don’t think we’ll see one. And underlying his whole life is the gaining and the losing and the eventual regaining of that inestimable treasure, the Holy Orthodox Christian faith and Holy Grace. Not for the faint of heart.” (D. Kovacs )

 

 

Not for the faint of heart.” Most certainly!

 

What an intense book which can be read on so many levels! A heart-rending spiritual biography of a brother in Christ struggling for his faith and the salvation of his soul amidst staggering trials, temptations and tribulations! A sobering warning too to all of us to be deadly serious with our faith and never forsake our obedience to our spiritual father at any cost! Hell indeed broke loose when Balfour decided to disobey St. Silouan and use his own mind instead for his life-decisions! To give you just one example: After converting to Orthodoxy and becoming an Orthodox hieromonk, Balfour disobeyed St Silouan’s ‘suggestion’ to move to France, and then to England, and went to Greece instead. Things went well at first, but with the outbreak of the Second World War, Balfour was forced to flee Greece and started wandering all over Europe, while undergoing a very dark period of disobedience, disillusionment, doubt and eventual loss of his faith, to the extent that he decided to shave his beard and defrock himself in Cairo, Egypt! I cannot even begin to imagine how traumatic all this experiences must have been for him!

elder-sophrony

 

What a most sobering book! “For Whom the Bells Toll” indeed. How often have I betrayed the Lord and disobeyed my spiritual father in the past! How dire the consequences of my disobedience have always been! Indeed, how fragile our faith is, how precarious our decision to follow the Lord at any cost like a true disciple, how unpredictable our falls and how uncertain our salvation until the very last moment of our life!

 

Striving for Knowledge of God: Correspondence with David Balfour is a treasury of wisdom distilled from Fr. Sophrony’s reading of the Fathers of the Church, from his conversations with St. Silouan, and from his own experience. Since most of these letters were written to someone new to the Orthodox Church and to Orthodox monasticism, they are of greatest interest to anyone contemplating converting to Orthodoxy.

 

In particular, the correspondence touches and elaborates on the difference between Eastern Orthodox and Western thought, in both Christian and philosophical writings. Thus Fr.Sophrony mentions Schleiermacher, Spinoza and Kant, and St John of the Cross (The Dark Night of the Soul). He dedicates a few pages to the concepts of the heart and prayer. In Eastern Christianity, he argues, the spiritual heart is not an abstract notion but is linked with our material heart and has its physical location. In opposition to the Western search for some visionary mystical experience, Fr.Sophrony advocates the prayer of repentance, which is the basis of all spiritual life.

 

As a reply to Balfour’s doubt over the importance of specifically Eastern ascetic and dogmatic traditions, Fr.Sophrony asserts the organic integrity and integrality of ascetic life, dogma and the Church. Criticising Schleiermacher in connexion with this issue, he writes:

 

“There are three things I cannot take in: nondogmatic faith, nonecclesiological Christianity and nonascetic Christianity. These three – the church, dogma, and asceticism – constitute one single life for me.” – Letter to D. Balfour, August 21, 1945.

 

“If one rejects the Orthodox creed and the eastern ascetic experience of life in Christ, which has been acquired throughout the centuries, then Orthodox culture would be left with nothing but the Greek minor [key] and Russian tetraphony.” – Letter to D. Balfour.

 

Fr.Sophrony also warns against attributing to intellectual reasoning the status of being the sole basis for religious search:

 

Historical experience has demonstrated that natural intellectual reasoning, left to its own devices, fatally arrives at pantheistic mysticism with its particular perception of reality. If this takes place in the soul of the Christian who does not want to reject Christ (as in the case of Leo Tolstoy), he arrives at Protestant rationalism or at spiritualism, which stands mystically close to pantheism… I am convinced that the rejection of the Church will lead to the rejection of the Apostolic message about Сthat which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes… and our hands have handled (1Jn.1:1) [148].

 

 

On a more general level, these letters are full with profound theological and spiritual insights. What a most blessed golden ‘chain’ of Grace and Sainthood! Elder Sophrony, already under consideration for glorification, was ordained to the diaconate by St Nicolai (Velimirovic) of Zicha and became a disciple of St Silouan the Athonite. Can you imagine? All these Saints were also ‘connected’ with the greatest probably Saint of our century, St. John Maximovitch! St. Nikolai Velimirovich is often referred to as Serbia’s New Chrysostom. St. John Maximovitch, who had been a young instructor at a seminary in Bishop Nikolai’s diocese of Ohrid, called him “a great saint and Chrysostom of our day [whose] significance for Orthodoxy in our time can be compared only with that of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky). … They were both universal teachers of the Orthodox Church.”

 

Coming back to the book, of all theological concepts touched upon in this book, the one which most interests me  is the concept of Godforsakenness, as outlined by Fr.Sophrony, who worked out a distinction between two types:The first one is when man deserts God: To the extent that we live in this world, to that same extent we are dead in God. The second one is when God hides from man: a horrific state of Godforsakenness. When man has no more life in this world, i.e. cannot live by this world, the memory of the divine world draws him there, yet despite all this darkness encompasses his soul. He explains: these fluctuations of the presence and absence of grace are our destiny until the end of our earthly life. Fr.Sophrony saw suffering as a necessary stage in ascetic development: Divine grace comes only in the soul which has undergone suffering.

 

“We must have the determination to overcome temptations comparable to the sorrows of the first Christians. All the witnesses of Christ’s Resurrection were martyred. We should be ready to endure any hardship.”

 

“The most important thing in the spiritual life is to strive to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. It changes our lives (above all inwardly, not outwardly). We will live in the same house, in the same circumstances, and with the same people, but our life will already be different. But this is possible only under certain conditions: if we find the time to pray fervently, with tears in our eyes. From the morning to ask for God’s blessing, that a prayerful attitude may define our entire day.”

 

“Whoever gives up his cross cannot be worthy of the Lord and become His disciple. The depths of the Divine Being are revealed to the Christian when he is crucified for our Savior. The Cross is the foundation of authentic theology.”

 

Not for the faint of heart, indeed!

Princess Turned Nun

Princess Turned Nun: Life of Princess Ileana of Romania then Mother Alexandra
Ileana as a young woman

Princess Ileana

Ileana as a young woman

‘But I felt I had to stand on my own feet and learn the hard way, for the hard way is the only way. I know from bitter experience where it leads to, to lean on others. It is only when one has learned to stand on one’s own feet, when one has found a solid foundation, that it is wise or good to accept help.’ (I Live Again)

Here’s an unconventional life:  A princess, great-grand daughter of Queen Victoria of England and Czar Alexander II of Russia, twice divorced (!), founder of the European equivalent of the Girls’ Scouts, gives up her pampered princess life to found and direct the first English-language Orthodox monastery in rural Pennsylvania.  Although she passed away in 1982, her life still inspires, serving as a testament to the attractiveness of the ascetic life that Orthodox theology encourages.  Her worldly name was Princess Ileana of Romania, but her tonsured name was Alexandra, eventually she became known as Mother Alexandra as the igoumeni, Abbes, Mother Superior of the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pa.

Princess Ileana

    Princess Ileana of Roumania as a teen

a real beauty in body and soul Princess Ileana of Romania

A real beauty in body and soul Princess Ileana of Romania

principesa Printesa_Ileana_de_Romania

Ileana of Romania as a young child

Ileana of Romania as a young child

Princess Ileana Red Cross

Ileana with her work in the Red Cross during the War

In my opinion, Princess Ileana’s story is a A Blessed Life of Extremes on so many levels. I have personally found Bev. Cooke’s narrative chronicle Royal Monastic: Princess Ileana of Romania: The Story of Mother Alexandra, a most fascinating account of the life of one of the twentieth centuries most unheralded, yet fascinating, persons. Mother Alexandra, formerly Princess Ileana of Romania, lived through two world wars, the communist takeover of her country, and finally saw its liberation. She lived a life of royalty and privilege, yet knew poverty, encountered opulent materialism, yet lived as an Orthodox nun founding a monastery in Pennsylvania in the later years of her life, married twice (!), yet became nun! Mother Alexandra’s experiences were varied and deep to the extent few others can claim. She was, by birth, related to some of the most powerful and historically significant people in modern history, yet never sought celebrity status. If you seek an inspirational biography, read this thrilling tale of love and loss, danger and rescue, sacrifice and reward. For all her shortcomings and ‘falls’, Mother Alexandra’s life stands in so many ways as a beacon of faith and holiness for women of all times and nations to follow. 

Life & Adventures: Birth and early life

Ileana was born in Bucharest on 5 January 1909, the youngest daughter of Queen Marie of Romania and King Ferdinand I of Romania. Although it was rumored that Ileana’s true father was her mother’s lover, Prince Barbu Ştirbey, the king admitted paternity. Ileana had four older siblings: CarolElisabeth – later Crown Princess of Greece, Princess Maria – later Queen of Yugoslavia – and Nicholas. Her younger brother Mircea was also claimed to be the child of Prince Ştirbey even though the king also claimed to be his father.

Girl Guiding

Before her marriage, Ileana was the organizer and Chief of the Romanian Girl Guide MovementLater Princess Ileana was involved in Guiding in Austria and served as president of the Austrian Girl Guides[1][2] from 1935 until Girl Guiding and Scouting were banned in 1938 after the Anschluss.

Other achievements

Ileana was the organizer of the Girl Reserves of the Red Cross, and of the first school of Social Work in Romania.

She was an avid sailor: she earned her navigator’s papers, and owned and sailed the “Isprava” for many years.

Before King Michael’s abdication

Marriage

In Sinaia on 26 July 1931, Ileana married the Archduke Anton of Austria, Prince of Tuscany. This marriage was encouraged by Ileana’s brother, King Carol II, who was jealous of Ileana’s popularity in Romania and wanted to get her out of the country.[3] After the wedding, Carol claimed that the Romanian people would never tolerate a Habsburg living on Romanian soil, and on these grounds refused Ileana and Anton permission to live in Romania.[3]

After her husband was conscripted into the Luftwaffe, Ileana established a hospital for wounded Romanian soldiers at their castle, Sonneburg, outside Vienna, Austria. She was assisted in this task by her friend Sheila Kaul. In 1944, she and the children moved back to Romania, where they lived at Bran Castle, near Brasov.[4] Archduke Anton joined them but was placed under house arrest by the Red Army. Princess Ileana established and worked in another hospital in Bran village, which she named the Hospital of the Queen’s Heart in memory of her beloved mother Queen Maria of Romania.

After exile

After Michael I of Romania abdicated, Ileana and her family were exiled from the newly Communist Romania. They escaped by train to the Russian sector of Vienna, then divided into three parts. After that they settled in Switzerland, then moved to Argentina and in 1950, she and the children moved to the United States, where she bought a house in Newton, Massachusetts.

The years from 1950 to 1961 were spent lecturing against communism, working with the Romanian Orthodox Church in the United States, writing two books: I Live Again, a memoir of her last years in Romania,[5] and Hospital of the Queen’s Heart, describing the establishment and running of the hospital. [For an introduction to her memoir go here and for the full text here.]

On 29 May 1954, Ileana and Anton officially divorced and she married secondly in NewtonMassachusetts, on 20 June 1954, to Dr. Stefan Nikolas Issarescu (Turnu-Severin, 5 October 1906 – Providence, 21 December 2002).

In 1961, Princess Ileana entered the Orthodox Monastery of the Protection of the Mother of God, in Bussy-en-OtheFrance. Her second marriage ended in divorce in 1965. On her tonsuring as a monastic, in 1967, Sister Ileana was given the name Mother Alexandra. She moved back to the United States and founded the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, the first English language Orthodox monastery in North America. She was the third female descendant of Queen Victoria to become a Mother Superior in a convent of her own foundation. She served as abbess until her retirement in 1981, remaining at the monastery until her death.

She visited Romania again in 1990, at the age of 81 in the company of her daughter, Sandi.

In January 1991, she suffered a broken hip in a fall on the evening before her eighty-second birthday, and while in hospital, suffered two major heart attacks. She died four days after the foundations had been laid for the expansion of the monastery.

book tour photo I live again

Ileana on book tour with memoir “I Live Again”

For more photographs about this extraordinary woman and her amazing story of courage and conviction go here.

An Associated Press article about Mother Alexandra

FORMER ROMANIAN PRINCESS FINDS LIFE IS RICHER AS A NUN

 

motheralexandra motheralex2

“I did my duty as princess. And now I’m doing my duty as a nun.”
The Rev. Mother Alexandra

By Marcia Dunn
Associated Press Writer

ELLWOOD CITY—Her family jewels are gone and her castle is property of the Communist state, but Romania’s Princess Ileana believes her life is blessed in far greater, grander ways.

The princess, 79, has found peace as the Rev. Mother Alexandra, one of 12 nuns who share food, work and prayer at an Orthodox monastery in rural Western Pennsylvania.

“One’s objects stand in the way,” she said. “I’m freer and richer spiritually, and mentally, too, I hope.”

The nun of 27 years has long since buried her royal roots as founder of The Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, the, first English-speaking Orthodox monastery in the United States.

But vestiges of those days remain, even at the monastery.

Portraits of her parents, Romania’s King Ferdinand and Queen Marie, hang in the living room of the A-frame house she shares with another nun.

Gold and silver icons dating back to the 15th century fill a corner of her bedroom. Antique icons also decorate the monastery’s small, candlelit chapel as do crosses and triptychs, some of which she brought from Europe.

A small, gold container on a bed stand holds her most precious possession, a handful of Romanian soil snatched during her escape from Russian Communism in World War II. She wants it buried with her.

“There’s a big gap between then and now. So much has happened in between,” Mother Alexandra said.

“It’s been different so many times over,” she said. “But you see, one lives day by day, doesn’t one? So that really it becomes a sequence of its own and you take it as it comes. Thank God, I always had a really strong faith that carried me through everything.”

She refuses to compare her regal and- religious lifestyles.

“There is no, point,” she said. “I did my duty as a princess. And now I’m doing my duty as a nun.”

Her superiors, nonetheless, are impressed by her example.

“As a person, as an individual, I have admiration because even not having a position, she could have had a social life, which would be much more in keeping with other people of her background,” said Bishop Nathaniel Popp, 47, head of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America.

“Instead of saying she was a princess who became a nun, I think it was more she was a nun coming through the life of a princess,” he said.

Although just a child during the German invasion of World War I, Princess Ileana accompanied her mother, the queen, from hospital to hospital, administering to Romania’s wounded and hungry. By World War II, her parents were dead, her older brother, Carol, had ascended the throne, one sister had become queen of Yugoslavia and another queen of Greece.

Princess Ileana lived in a castle near Vienna, wife of an archduke of Austria and mother of six.

Fearful of the Nazi regime, Princess Ileana and her family moved in 1944 to Romania. There, she set up hospitals and did what she could for her suffering compatriots despite Russia’s growing threat.

On Dec. 30, 1947, her nephew, King Michael, forced by the Communists to abdicate. The next week, Princess Ileana and the rest of the royal family were exiled.

Princess Ileana immigrated with her family to Switzerland then Argentina before settling in 1950 in the United States, a move that ultimately led to divorce. To support her children, she sold her diamond and sapphire tiara, lectured about life behind the Iron Curtain, and wrote the autobiography “I Live Again.”

In 1961, after her children were grown, the 52-year-old princess became a postulant. She ended a second marriage to do so.

“In my heart, I have always wanted to become a nun,” she said. “But there was so much to be done in Romania when I was young.”

Princess Ileana took the monastic vows of stability, obedience, poverty and chastity in 1967 and, with that profession, became Mother Alexandra. Later that year, she put up a trailer on 100 acres of farmland outside Ellwood City and began building an English-speaking monastery for Orthodox women of all ethnic backgrounds.

Even though she has stepped down as the monastery’s abbess, Mother Alexandra’s work goes on. She oversees construction of a new complex to accommodate more activities and the growing number of women drawn to the cluster of redwood buildings on a hill.

Her royal background, surprisingly, has helped her cope with the austerity of monastic life: two-hour prayer sessions three times a day, black habits and headdress, renunciation of the temporal world and ail its trappings.

“As a royal person, you have to be very disciplined,” she said. “From the beginning of your life, you are a public person. You belong to the country. Your own personal amusement does not play any part. Your duty comes first.

From that point of view… I’ve watched the other sisters, the struggles they have I don’t. For me, it isn’t difficult.

What is difficult for her is dealing with the strangers who periodically show up at monastery, hoping for a glimpse of a real-life princess.

“It’s my cross I have to bear,” she said, sighing.

To her sisters in spirit, she is just another nun.

“We live quite equally here,” said the Very Rev. Mother Christophora, the monastery’s abbess.

“Each of us has a background and a past. It’s there and you think about it occasionally,” said the 34-year-old abbess, a former alcoholism counselor from Lopez, Sullivan County. “But most of the time, we’re just getting along, surviving, loving our faith. Of course, that’s the way it should be. We should leave our past behind.”

“Mother Alexandra is a nun, sure. She’s in the garden, in the flowers, digging like everybody else,” said the Rev. Roman Braga, 65, the monastery’s chaplain.

Although she treasures her secular past, Mother Alexandra has no desire to resurrect it by visiting Romania, even if she could. Her passport, British because of her House of Hanover ancestry, is stamped: “You have no right to return.”

“I couldn’t bear to see everything that my parents did, we all did and worked for, destroyed,” she said.

Still, there are times, especially around Romania’s National Day on May 10, when her heart longs for the land she left behind.

“I’ll always be homesick,” she said. “I think that’s an illness of which one is never cured. You accept it like one accepts anything else.

“Besides, what I’m homesick for doesn’t exist anymore. That’s the tragedy.”

Source: Greek American Girl

Visited by God

Jeanne Harper, Visited by God: The Story of Michael Harper’s 48 Year-long Ministry (Aquila Books, 2013), 146 pages.

Visited by God is the extraordinary spiritual journey of an extraordinary Spiritual man – Michael Harper. I think that I would not be missing the mark to say that Michael Harper was the leader of the Charismatic renewal in England and many other parts of the Globe. Beginning as an Anglican chaplain under John Stott at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, his journey finally culminated in his introducing an authentically British Orthodoxy as Dean of a new Antiochian Orthodox Deanery with English-speaking parishes all over the country.

His journey was a long and often ‘very difficult’ and testing one. In some ways I can liken it to the journey of St. Paul in that he depended solely on the Holy Spirit to lead him and lead him the Holy Spirit did! It all began in 1962 when Michael was visited by God while studying St Paul’s two prayers in his Epistle to the Ephesians. He ‘saw’ the Church as God saw her – broken by divisions and untended wounds.

It was almost from that very moment that Michael’s God-given mission for unity in the Church began. But there were many in the Anglican Church who opposed this renewal and together with Pentecostalism the movement was dismissed as over-emotionalism and therefore unacceptable. Inevitable disputes and arguments occurred but this did not deter Michael. On the contrary his detractors spurred him on! He continued to go wherever in the world there were people hungry for the power to live what they believed.

One might come to the conclusion that Michael’s journey as leader of the Charismatic renewal movement would result in a very broad liberality but when the Church of England’s General Synod of 1975 passed the motion allowing women into the priesthood, Michael felt more than just stirrings of discontent. Jeanne Harper describes Michael’s anguish which led to a most difficult and painful decision – to leave the Church of England – whom he called his foster mother, so faithfully had she cared for him and led him to his real mother, Orthodoxy.

Jeanne describes how he was led by the Holy Spirit to the Orthodox Church and in 2000 Michael founded the English-speaking Antiochan Orthodox Parish of St. Botolph’s near Liverpool Street, London. At the same time Michael was appointed as a director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies Cambridge. And in 2005 he was elevated to Archpriest.

The silken thread of a spider is spun from behind him as he moves forward to spin his web. The spider cannot see his work until he looks back and then the pattern of his web with all its links is revealed. Looking back over the web of Michael Harper’s life one thing is clear – from the very beginning Michael’s journey had a pattern and this pattern was a pure reflection of God’s will in his life. Once this was achieved Michael was taken in 2010 and lives in constant joy and prayer along with the saints in glory.

Jeanne Harper shares this God given Spirit filled journey of her husband with the reader and in so doing cannot fail to make us all yearn for the presence of the Holy Spirit to touch and lead all our lives.

And let us not lose this opportunity.

Reviewed by David Suchet CBE

* Last but not least, the concluding chapter “The British Antiochian Orthodox Deanery Mission” is written by Fr. Jonathan Hemmings, one of the priests of the Deanery, whose parishes are strategically spread over England and are to be found in Ireland, north and south. The Dean who succeeded Father Michael, is Father Gregory Hallam, whose vibrant parish is in Manchester. Fr. Jonathan Hemmings ministers in Lancaster at the Orthodox Church of the Holy and Life Giving Crossworshipping at St Martin of Tours, Westgate. He writes the following chapter on the story of the Deanery and its missionary vision.

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