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

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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

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