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.
* 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.