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Image from here.

(From Knot 26 of The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery, published by Ancient Faith Publishing [formerly Conciliar Press], 2012)

One afternoon Sr. Nektaria and I had the task of thoroughly cleaning the guests’ dining hall. I was washing the tables while she swept, and we got into a conversation about how she found out about the monastery. She told me her incredible story, a story I found quite representative of the opinion many share towards those they do not understand.

Sr. Nektaria was born and raised in Australia; she is not Greek and has no Greek ancestry. Her mother was of Ukrainian descent, so she and her four siblings were raised as Orthodox Christians. The church they attended in Australia had a mixture of Orthodox nationalities, including Greeks. Growing up, Sr. Nektaria did not have a good opinion of the latter.

“If we got tired during the Divine Liturgy, my mother wouldn’t let us sit down. We could only kneel! While the Greek children got to play outside until the Our Father and only then come into the church.

“I hated the way they always dressed up so much for church, the way they seemed to show off. I didn’t understand anything then. I didn’t understand that when they dressed up they did it because they felt like they were going to see the King.

“I thought they were always blaspheming, saying Panagia all the time. I didn’t realize that it was because they had true love for the saints and Christ. So they spoke of them with familiarity. In our family home, maybe you would see an icon high up in the corner of the living room, while Greeks had icons everywhere. But I didn’t understand them, so I didn’t want anything to do with them.

“When I decided to move to Albania for a short work contract, I never considered visiting Greece. A Greek man from my church heard I was moving and wanted to take me out for coffee with him and his wife to speak to me about visiting a monastery in Northern Greece. He wanted me to visit some women’s monastery that was only an hour west of Thessaloniki. He said there was another nun there from Australia.

“I didn’t want to visit Greece, so I kindly humored him but didn’t make any promises. He wrote down the directions to the monastery for me in Greek and insisted on giving me drachmas, the old Greek currency. I tried very hard to refuse them because I knew if I took them I’d be obliged to go.

“‘If you can stay there for two to three weeks it will be enough time for you,’ he told me. ‘No, no, you need about four weeks. Hmm, if you stay five to six weeks I’m certain it will be enough time for you.’ After saying this he gave me Abbess Thaisia’s book, Letters to a Beginner.* When his wife saw this she became upset with him. ‘How dare you be so presumptuous, assuming she’ll become a nun!’ she scolded him.

“I had never considered becoming a nun. I was a regular young adult who didn’t live any form of a spiritual life. His comments came completely out of nowhere. I sang in the choir, but I showed no signs of being spiritual in any other way. I took his directions to the monastery, the drachmas, and the book, but was not pleased about it all.

“Since I had a good job in Australia, I had saved a lot of money. Before leaving for Albania, I thought I better set some things up with my bank so that if anything happened to me, my family could access my savings. So I signed everything over to my sister.

“Once I was in Albania, I took out a map and was surprised to see how close I was to the monastery the man wanted me to visit. I really didn’t want to return to Australia with the drachmas he gave me and have to tell him I didn’t go. So I decided to give in and go to Greece. He told me once I arrived at the monastery to simply ask for Sr. Epomoni.

“After taking a bus to the nearby village and a taxi to the monastery, I arrived in the afternoon and immediately asked for Sr. Epomoni. To my great surprise, it was my catechism teacher from when I was a child! I had no idea she had become a nun. She was as surprised to see me as I was to see her. She spoke to Gerontissa, and they invited me to stay for a week.

“Friday came and Gerontissa asked me when I was leaving. I asked to stay until Monday. On Monday I asked to stay until Friday, and it went on like this for a few weeks. Finally, I told Sr. Epomoni that I wanted to remain close to the monastery. So the nuns had some friends set up a job for me in Thessaloniki.

“The night before I was to leave the monastery, while walking in the courtyard with Sr. Epomoni I told her, ‘I really don’t want to go to Thessaloniki. I just feel like staying at the monastery.’

“‘I think it’s time we went and you confessed to Gerontissa,’ she told me.

“So, that’s what we did. I told Gerontissa everything I ever did in my life—which was extremely difficult and embarrassing to do through a translator—and they had a  heiromonk come so I could confess to him and receive absolution.

“Gerontissa agreed to let me stay, and that is when I realized I had been at the monastery for exactly five and a half weeks.

“After hating Greeks my whole life, they became the ones that saved me!” she said, wiping tears from her cheeks.

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* This book is mistakenly referred to as Letters to a Young Nun in the original version of The Scent of Holiness but has been corrected it here.

The Scent of Holiness is available in paperback and e-book format. You can purchase it here or here.

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IMG_7266(From an interview I did with the authour of the blog Byzantine Texas last August)

Could you speak to how different monasticism is in Greece than it is in the US or Canada?

The biggest difference between monasticism in Greece and monasticism in the US or Canada is that monasticism has existed in Greece for some 1,500 years. Thus, the monastic mindset and way of life is firmly established. While in North America monasticism is still relatively young.

This does not mean that there are no monasteries in North America that embody the true monastic spirit. On the contrary, there are quite a few, considering how large North America is. But it does mean that there are more anomalies in the US and Canada than there may be in an Orthodox country. However, this shouldn’t spoil our view of Orthodox monasticism in general.

While my younger sister was staying at a monastery for a few months some years ago the abbess shared something with her that I think we can apply to Orthodox monasteries at large: “If you see something in a monastery, someone who talks or acts differently than the other sisters, know that that is not monasticism. What the sisters do and say in common is monasticism, not what comes from one individual.” If a particular monastery does not reflect Orthodox monasticism worldwide, then it is not monasticism.

Orthodox monasteries, despite differences in language, habit, work, or typikon, share certain universal qualities: obedience, chastity, and poverty – to name a few. On top of those basic precepts, there is a monastic spirit that permeates monasteries that is perceivable even when one monastery seems to differ entirely in outward ways from another. That is, provided the community upholds the above mentioned qualities of monasticism. If the community is healthy, if it keeps the fasts of the Church, struggles to uphold Christ’s commandments, and adheres to a regime of prayer than it will flourish over time, even if the country it is in is entirely secular or at very least non-Orthodox.

What we need to do is pray for our monastics in the US and Canada, pray that they maintain the spirit of authentic monasticism, and that God would grant them the strength to allow Christ to work through them, through their prayers for the world. Over time Christ will grant our request, so long as we keep knocking at the door. Then North America can become the second Egyptian desert, or the second Irish islands (both of which are famous for their monasticism).

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On one of my many visits to a fifteenth century women’s monastery in Greece Sr. Theologia asked me: “What theology do you learn here? All we do is put you to work.”

Come along with me and see what I saw, hear what I heard, drink from the spiritual fountain of life-giving water that was given to me. For four years I studied at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki but during that time I learned more from my encounters with nuns than I could have from countless degrees. I met holy people, heard incredible stories, helped with interesting work, and made a few quirky mistakes as a foreigner along the way. But I gained invaluable experience as an Orthodox Christian. Longing to learn true theology I went and sat at the feet of the greatest scholars, a monastery full of nuns.

Biographies of contemporary Elders abound. Books about experiences to the Holy Mountain and other male monasteries are in plenty. How often do we get to glimpse the spiritual life of women? This book is a treasury of spiritual advice, examples of true friendship, loving reprimands, and countless lessons from spiritual women. To Sr. Theologia’s question I answer: Let me tell you what I’ve learned…

The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery is a collection of stories of my frequent trips to women’s monasteries in Northern Greece, and is meant to be a modern-day Materikon written by a layperson for laypeople.

The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery is available for purchase (both as a paperback and as an e-book) on Amazon and  Ancient Faith Publishing’s website.

For orders outside the US you can order from Ancient Faith Publishing. Amazon will only send hard copies of the book to residence in the US but the e-book is available in all countries and can be read on PC computers, not only on e-readers.

Merry Christmas-shopping!

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2For more information see here.

http://www.asna.ca/images/oss2013f-panel.gifFor more information see here

1I’m looking forward to meeting some of you in person!

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Fort Amherst, St. John’s, Newfoundland photo from here: http://www.stare.ca/fort-amherst-st-johns-newfoundland-017594.php

Well we have much to give thanks to God for this season. We finally arrived in St. John’s, Newfoundland two weeks or so ago now and we are very grateful for our home, our parish and this island in general.

We’re celebrating Thanksgiving in Canada for the first time in eight years. The last one we spent in Canada was our wedding day.

You may have noticed that the blog posts have slowed down to about two a week. Unfortunately I just don’t have time to post more often than that. I’m really busy with my studies, keeping up with services at the Mission, and settling into our new home/city.

I will be traveling to Ontario next month for a series of talks I’ll be giving over a span of a few days (Nov. 6-10). Preparing for these talks has been a wonderful opportunity to catch up on some spiritual reading on a variety of topics.

Here is the rough schedule of the talks. (I’m unsure of some of the locations but I will update the information when I have more details):

allsaints2

Wednesday, November 6, 6:30PM

(Location) Apostle Paul’s Bookstore in Toronto

(Topic) Christian Struggle

Thursday, November 7, 11:00AM

(Location) Toronto

(Topic) The Virtue of a Woman

Saturday, November 9, 2:00PM-8:30PM

(Event) Ten-year Anniversary Fundraiser for All Saints of North America Orthodox Church

(Location) St. Stephen’s Anglican Parish Hall in Hamilton, Ontario

(Schedule)
1pm – Registration
2pm – Session One – Topic: Hospitality: Giving More than a Cup of Water
3:15pm – Break
3:30pm – Session Two – Topic: Reverence in All Things
4:45pm – Break
5:00pm – Vespers Service
6:00pm – Lenten Dinner
7:00pm – Session Three – Topic: Obedience: Means to Eternal Salvation
A book signing will also take place.

Sunday, November 10

(Event) Fundraiser for Holy Trinity Monastery

(Location) Four Seasons Restaurant in London, Ontario

(Topic) The Ever-Memorable Abbess Macrina: Contemporary Mother of the Church

For more information or to order tickets for the talks in Hamilton see this electronic pamphlet.

allsaintsI hope to see some of you there!

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One year ago today my husband and I were attending a vigil in the middle of the night at a monastery in honour of his patron saint, St. John the Theologian. Little did I know that my book, The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery, would be released that day. I came home from the monastery to find an e-mail saying it was finally in available.

Here's a hilarious photo of my brother teasing me, pretending to have fallen asleep while reading my boring book. (This was only intended for private viewings, but a little sister likes to give a little pay back! hehe)

Here’s a hilarious photo of my brother teasing me, pretending to have fallen asleep while reading my boring book. (This was only intended for private viewings, but a little sister likes to give a little pay back! hehe)

“After so much work it was finally going to be bought and read  by a few people,” I thought. I had no idea it was going to do as well as it has done. To date there are 24 reviews on Amazon, 10 reviews and 23 ratings on Goodreads, and a bunch of e-book passages highlighted by various readers available to be seen on Amazon kindle (go to bottom of page and see “View your notes and highlights”).

It’s interesting to see what passages resonate most with people. The most popular? “If we judge someone, God allows us to fall into the same sin—to humble us”. It has been highlighted 38 times according to Amazon kindle – a statement I have been told by many people – including my own spiritual father.

I thought a few people would like the book, a few people would dislike it and before I knew it it would be forgotten. But that hasn’t happened yet. I still get messages from people saying they read the book and enjoyed it. I wrote it to share the blessings I had been given, but instead received even more blessings: the book is well into its second printing, it’s being translated into the Romanian language, and I have been very humbled by its positive reception. My God make me worthy of your prayers, dear readers!

knot oneSo, on the first anniversary of my first book, I’m re-posting the book trailer and including links to information on the book. Thank you for all your support!

The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery is available for purchase (both as a paperback and as an e-book) on Amazon and  Ancient Faith Publishing’s (formally Conciliar Press) website.

For orders outside the US you can order from  Ancient Faith Publishing. Amazon will only send hard copies of the book to residence in the US but the e-book is available in all countries and can be read on PC computers, not only on e-readers.

To hear an interview with me on Ancient Faith Radio see here.

To listen to a talk I gave on the book and monasticism more generally, see here.

To read an interview I did on Byzantine Texas see here.

To hear a review and excerpt of the book, go here.

Τo watch an interview I did on TheDove.TV see here.

And to read various posts about the book – including excerpts – see here.

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An excerpt from The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Monastery, pp. 69-72 published by Conciliar Press (now Ancient Faith Publishing):

It was the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ, and although I was exhausted, I slowly made my way from the guest house to the monastery church for the vigil. As usual, the lights were off, the oil lamps lit, and the candle boxes full of candles—the smoke of which rose up as a symbolic prayer for the numerous souls and causes they burned for.

I entered the nave and venerated the icon of Christ’s Transfiguration that lay on the white embroidered covering of the icon stand. Beside it was a large candle stand that had a wooden portion near the top with intricately painted flowers and vines in pink, blue, purple, and green. The large beeswax candle burning above it illumined the white-clothed figure of Christ; it illumined the shining light surrounding Him and the figures of the apostles, who, stunned by the vision, were lying prostrate. Christ was revealing Himself as the perfect Radiance of the Father, the pre-eternal Word, begotten of the Father before all ages.

Shine Your light also on me, your lowly servant, I whispered as I kissed His feet.

I made my way to a stasidi* on the left side of the church—the designated section for women—standing in the one closest to the icon of the patron saint. I examined all the silver and gold rectangular plaques lined up on the bottom of his icon, each one embossed with a different body part: arms, eyes, legs, and hearts. They are called tamata, and many faithful buy them and place them on miracle-working icons in supplication for health or healing of the particular body part depicted.

I was tired and not particularly in the mood for a vigil after a day of work. It was still the beginning of Matins when I told myself: It’s one of the Great Feasts, wake up and pay attention!

Yet I couldn’t rouse myself or inspire myself to feel moved by such a wonderful feast.

I wonder how long this is going to take . . . My mind wandered again.

Shut up and say the prayer! I fought back.

Time passed, I struggled not to fall asleep, and especially not to fall over during those few moments I did fall asleep while standing on my feet. I made sure to always have one hand holding the stasidi, just in case.

Doxa see to theexadi to fos… Glory to Thee who hast shown us the light,” the nuns chanted.

Okay, really, wake up now. The Liturgy is about to start, I told myself.

I shook myself awake, just in time to see Sr. Akakia and Sr. Arsenia moving from lighting the candles in the chandelier, to lighting the candles on the coronathe larger, circular chandelier that encircles the main chandelier (most often found in monastery churches).

They each held a long wooden rod with a small flame on the end. Facing each other they began to light each individual candle in the large, golden corona. And before I knew it the whole nave was encompassed in light.

Having lit all the candles on her side, Sr. Arsenia walked back to the narthex, with her black ecclesiarch’s robe flowing behind her.

Returning, she handed Sr. Akakia a different long, wooden rod with a metal hook on the end. Standing on opposites sides once again, they each placed the rod on one side of the corona. Slowly and carefully they pushed the rods in opposite directions, causing the corona to sway, turning left and right, the icons of the apostles and patriarchs embossed on the corona now moving in rhythm.

Before exiting this time, Sr. Arsenia reached up and gently held the golden right hand of blessing that points downward, attached to the bottom of the chandelier. Ever so slightly she turned it, causing the large chandelier to also sway in a circular motion.

I was taken aback. I had only seen this once, during Pascha at a monastery in America. I didn’t know they did this for other liturgical feasts.

As soon as the chandelier began swaying, I noticed Sr. Akakia in front of the icon of Christ in the iconostasis. As Sr. Arsenia had done to the hand of blessing, she too gently held the bottom of the large, silver oil lamp and guided it to sway in a circle. Next, she approached the icon of the Mother of God. Bowing and crossing herself, she kissed her before putting to motion her oil lamp. I stepped back, allowing Sr. Akakia more room as she approached the icon of the patron saint. His icon was lit by three oil lamps. She spun the one in the middle first, the other two afterward.

As the nuns began chanting the troparion for the feast, the whole nave was basking not only in light, but in moving light.

Metamorfotheis en to orei Hriste o Theos . . . O Thou who wast transfigured upon the mountain, Christ our God, and shewedst to Thy disciples Thy glory, as they were able to bear it: kindle Thine everlasting light even upon us sinners, by the prayers of the Mother of God. O Giver of Light, glory be to Thee!”

The cosmos was swaying in glorious anticipation of the celebration of Christ’s revelation to the world as perfect God and perfect Man. And what had I been doing in anticipation?

O Lord, I was found sleeping when I should have been watching. Enlighten me with Your everlasting light, as far as I can bear it, and forgive me, a sinner.

Reflecting thus, I bowed low and made the sign of the cross as the priest intoned, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

* A stasidi (plural: stasidia) is a large throne-like chair that line the walls in most churches in Greece. They are usually connected in a row. The stasidi has a seat, which can fold up, so one can stand on the small wooden platform below or sit on the folded seat which is higher up, allowing one to rest, but in an almost standing position. There are arm rests for both positions.

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agia sophia

Christ is Risen!

This photo is of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople from our pilgrimage there in 2008. I am posting it today as a reminder of the day the City fell. In my book The Scent of Holiness (pp. 128-129) there is a story about the first Patriarch after the fall, St. Gennadios Scholarios II.

Here it is:

After singing Agia Sophia I told them about my trip with my husband to Constantinople earlier that summer, and they told me about Patriarch Gennadios Scholarios. He was the first Patriarch  after the city fell.

After the Turks took over Constantinople, the ruling Sultan Mehmed II, who led the capture of the city, had a recurring dream about a hand with five fingers. Upset that neither he nor any other Muslim could decipher its meaning, the Sultan sent out his men to find the monk Gennadios, who was renowned for his insight into things of a spiritual nature. Once they found him, the men asked monk Gennadios to interpret the Sultan’s dream. Gennadios agreed but said he needed to fast and pray for several days before he would be able to interpret it.

After fasting and praying, he was informed by God what the dream meant. The hand with five fingers the Sultan continually saw in his dream represented five faithful Christians—the five faithful Christians Constantinople did not have living in it at the time of its collapse.

“If there had been only five faithful Christians in Constantinople, God would not have allowed it to be captured by you,” monk Gennadios explained to the Sultan.

Relieved to finally have his dream interpreted, Sultan Mehmed II promised not to persecute the Christians and to make Gennadios the leader of his people. The Sultan honored his wish. Thus, monk Gennadios became the first Ecumenical Patriarch after the fall of The City…

Imagine, I thought to myself, if back then there weren’t even five faithful Christians in Constantinople, how many would God find in our cities today?

It is believed by some that the Sultan converted to Christianity through the prayers and enlightening conversations he had with St. Gennadios.

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Polina Yemelyanova of theDove.us (a TV and Radio program in the States) conducted this interview with me a few weeks ago. The whole interview can now be viewed on Youtube (the one I posted the other day was a slightly different version with an introduction and photos).

Check it out and let me know what you think!

 

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I haven’t gotten the chance to put together a post on Fr. John’s very blessed ordination day; we’ve been traveling around Nova Scotia. I’ll try to post photos, etc. soon.

For now you can check out this interview I did on The Dove about The Scent of Holiness and monasticism generally. They did a fantastic job. It looks really well put together. I hope you enjoy it!

http://podcast.thedove.us/index.php/archives/485

 

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