Christ is Risen!
Below is the transcript of a talk I gave for Holy Trinity Monastery fundraiser at the Four Seasons restaurant in London, ON, November 10, 2013. Gerontissa Macrina reposed on May 22 (Old Style) 1994.
You may notice that some stories are not written in full below. That is because at certain points in the talk I did not use notes. If you wish to hear these stories in full you can watch the recording here.
Gerontissa Macrina (the Greek title for elderess) is a very special person, for not only did she have a great influence on the spiritual lives of many in Greece, but in North America as well. A few of the women’s monasteries under the spiritual direction of Geronda Ephraim trace their roots to Gerontissa Macrina since he took nuns from her monastery to establish other monasteries.
If I could be so bold, I would say that just as Geronda Ephraim is the father of the revitalization of cenobitic monasticism in North America, so Gerontissa Macrina is the mother of this revitalization. She is a Mother for all Orthodox Christians, because she is, in every sense of the word, a Mother of the Church. She is a saint like the saints of old: wise in spiritual matters, reverent in every regard and virtuous beyond compare! She is, in my humble opinion, an abbess like St. Irene Chrystovalandou and St. Macrina the sister of St. Basil the Great. And for this reason, she is a Mother for us all.
While she lived many great contemporary spiritual elders recognized her purity of heart and the grace of God which dwelt in her. Elder Iakovos Tsalikis – who lived in St. David’s Monastery in Evia – used to say, “If I lived in Volos I would go on foot to kiss Gerontissa’s hand and get her blessing before going to work each day.” Once, Gerontissa met Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. She traveled to Halikidi where Geronda was staying at a monastery and when they saw each other they both prostrated, one to the other (just like St. Mary of Egypt and St. Zosimas). Elder Ephraim Katanakiotis also loved and respected her very much. When she went to visit him at a hospital he was staying in his disciple asked him if he would receive her and he proclaimed, “Open wide the doors!” In fact, Elder Ephraim of Katonakia prayed and received confirmation from God that Gerontissa occupied a very high spiritual state like that of Elder Joseph the Hesychast (a very holy man who reposed in 1959). See, Gerontissa wasn’t merely a mother for the nuns in Greece and in North America. She was a mother even to these saintly men!
By looking at the life and teachings of Gerontissa Macrina, we want to stress the importance of monasticism. Because of the holy monasteries we have spiritual giants such as Gerontissa Macrina. She – through monastic struggle – became a saint and because she acquired holiness thousands of people profit from her influence, the example of her selfless life. This is why the monasteries are important! They produce saints and teach us how to become saints in the world.
There is a book about Gerontissa Macrina that her monastery published last year, about her life and teachings. Her book is aptly called Λόγια Καρδίας (Words from the Heart) and her words not only come from the heart but penetrate the heart as well. If you read her book you will see that just about every paragraph describes some miracle Gerontissa lived. At times I would read it and actually become discouraged seeing as though I am spiritual light-years behind Gerontissa.
Gerontissa Macrina experienced many hardships, but she also experienced many states of grace. However, it is not the miracles she experienced and describes that make her a Mother of the Church. It was the little things that show us that she had acquired a high level of virtue and this should encourage us to also struggle here in the world to emulate Gerontissa’s uncomprising fight to attain holiness – not so we can say we had so-and-so saint visit us, heal us, etc. but so we can attract the grace of God and become “gods by grace”.
When we have Christ living in us, like Gerontissa had, everything becomes light, everything easy, everything joyful. The greatest hardships in the world become means for us to commune with God, and instead of complaining we praise Him. Because hardships, tribulations and difficulties – as we will see in the life of Gerontissa Macrina – serve to help us seek and struggle to live a Christ-centered life. And it is about these things I wish to speak, for seeing visions and smelling divine fragrances are worthless if we don’t strive everyday to live for Christ so that He might live in us, transforming our darkness into light, our sadness into joy, and our tribulations into opportunities for spiritual victories.
It was in the little ways that Gerontissa Macrina’s virtue manifested itself. And it is in the little ways that we can emulate her, and with the help of God root out our evil habits, root out our dissatisfactions with our children, our in-laws, our jobs, and ultimately become full of peace and joy.
Gerontissa Macrina’s name in the world was Maria Vassopoulou. She was born in 1921 in the village of Χατζλέρι in the western part of Asia Minor. Her parents brought her to Greece during the Exchange of Population in 1922. They eventually settled in Νέα Ιωνία in Volos – the city in which Gerontissa and her nuns would later build a monastery.
By the young age of 9 she had lost both parents. Her father fell asleep first on Clean Monday in 1929 and the next year, again on Clean Monday, her mother passed away. Little Maria and her four-year old brother were left orphaned. This hardship was the first of many in Gerontissa Macrina’s life – all of which she accepted with fortitude and patience, and through which the grace of God made her holy.
As soon as she saved enough money from working, little Maria gave money to her spiritual father to serve 40 Liturgies for the souls of her parents. This alms-giving benefited their souls greatly and they were transposed to an even greater place in Paradise.
There were times during the war when her and her brother were literally starving to death. But before her father died, he was informed not only of his and his wife’s impending death, but also that God would protect and provide for little Maria and her brother George. Although it seemed that many times they would die, God protected them. For an entire year edible greens grew outside the window of their home and no matter how many times they picked the greens they’d grow back at an impossible speed. You see, from this we learn that sometimes it seems like God has abandoned us. He promised to take care of these children, and yet at times they almost died of starvation. Sometimes it seems like God has abandoned us, turned His back on us, but we need to be patient and we will see how much He cares for us at every turn!
From a young age little Maria enjoyed reading the Scriptures, lives of the saints, hymns, and Patristic and ascetical writings. See, we need to read these things to our children and grandchildren from a young to help them learn from holy writings which not only make them wise, but virtuous, just as Gerontissa was from childhood.
Maria, though a child, had a faithful and ascetical mindset. She fully trusted in God, just as we should do. Once while visiting family friends in Athens she heard about an illumined geronda who was clairvoyant staying in Piraeus. One morning she made her cross and set out, fasting, to find the elder, but she didn’t know his address. She just walked and prayed for God’s guidance. Just as it was getting dark Maria decided to stop and ask someone if they knew where the elder was staying. The first door she knocked on, who answered? The very elder she was looking for! He invited her in, fed her and advised her. And he revealed many things about her future. Such was this child’s faith that she completely entrusted herself to God. What a great example for us not to worry about this or that, but to pray, make our cross and have faith and patience. God takes care of everything!
She had great love for and trust in her spiritual father. She would ask him to cross her and miracles would occur on account of her faith and obedience…
Such was her virtue. She struggled, she confessed her sins, she did perfect obedience to her spiritual father, she humbled herself and with the grace of God she enjoyed great states of prayer and blessedness.
After working in the world until we was in her late thirties, Maria and some of her spiritual sisters from the world found a place wherein they could live out the monastic life. They contacted Elder Joseph the Hesychast (the elder of Geronda Ephraim) and he became their spiritual father and director (after his death Geronda Ephraim of Arizona became the monastery’s spiritual father). Without having ever met Maria, and even though there were other women older than her, Geronda Iosif prayed and saw a green pasture with many sheep gathered around Maria. There appeared a monkey who was trying to bother the sheep but Maria shoed it far away with a reed she was holding. Thus Geronda had confirmation from God that it was His will for Maria to guide and protect the sisterhood.
On account of her humility, however, it was very difficult for Maria to accept this. So the elder prayed for her to receive confirmation herself that this was God’s will for her. One evening Maria saw the Holy Forerunner John claiming a mountain toward the heavens with a staff in his hand. She followed behind him and behind her a host of monastics. At some point the saint stopped, turned toward Maria and handed her his staff. After this Maria accepted God’s will and thus she became Gerontissa Macrina in holy monasticism. This is a little example of her great humility! She wasn’t able to make herself the leader without firm confirmation from God, but once she received the confirmation she didn’t insist on her will, but accepted God’s will for her.
As we’ve seen, her virtues weren’t limited to monasticism. She herself tells us that while in the world she struggled to obey her spiritual father. She taught that obedience to your spiritual father brings the soul joy, it is the cause of constant gratitude; obedience is a golden life which gives you strength and grace and keeps our consciences clean. And she tells us, this caused her to feel the presence of God. She convinced herself that even while in the world those around her were like her cenovio (her sisterhood) and she did obedience those people. She said doing our own will, what our thoughts tell us, instead of obedience is one of the greatest downfalls we are able to experience.
Another thing that Gerontissa spoke a great deal about was not wasting time. This was of great concern to her. God gave us the time that we have in this life to draw closer to Him. We need to safeguard this time, use it wisely. She taught that we need order in our lives and spiritual lives. Reading the lives of the saints, prayer, reading Scripture, these were all things she stressed. She would say the Fathers, the saints, did not have more than we do. They fought the same passions and struggled to live holy lives, just as we should do; with struggle and a good disposition they arrived at holiness, just as we are able to. If they were able to succeed, we have no excuses, because all we need to do is put in a little effort and God will give us so much grace that no spiritual victory will be impossible for us to accomplish. Even if only for one week, she said, we were to struggle to keep silent and pray we would see – even in this short period of time – the depth of God’s love!!!
God’s grace visits us when someone upsets us, they say harsh things to us, criticize or fight with us, if we keep our thoughts humble even in the midst of these trials God will visit us with grace! God will change our hearts – hard as stone though they may be, He will make our darkness light and our cold hearts to burn with love for God. And when we see the grace of God we’ll say: “I’m gonna try not to have disdain for anyone in my soul.” And even to those who hate us and treat us poorly we will say, “This person is a saint in my eyes!” And gradually all the vices in our hearts will flee and God’s grace will reign.
Gerontissa not only loved God above all and taught her nuns to love Him, but she also loved her neighbour as herself. With pain of heart she would pray for people and they would receive great benefit. She once prayed for her friend, a woman who was a teacher in the world. This teacher didn’t believe in God as Trinity. She couldn’t understand and refused to believe how God in Trinity could be one essence since God is also three persons. Gerontissa prayed very much for this misguided teacher, for Gerontissa feared what the woman was teaching the children in school about God since she was in error. Gerontissa prayed so much for this woman that one night three angels appeared to this woman. They told her, “Examine us and see if you can find any difference between us.” She examined them from their heads to their toes, their height, their nails, their eyes, hair, everything. She could not find a single difference between them. “There is no difference between you,” she answered. “Now do you believe in the one essence?” The woman ran to Gerontissa’s house (this was before Gerontissa became a monastic), she told her the story and began crying, “You prayed for me!” she said. “Now I will teach this at school.”
After this experience the woman became very faithful! All through Gerontissa’s prayers! Her love and her prayers corrected this woman’s wrong belief. And this is a great testimony for us – prayer works wonders. We should never give up on someone, pray, pray, pray and God will enlighten them because His love and mercy are greater than ours and He’s always looking for an excuse to help someone. So we should pray – even for those who hate us!
Gerontissa tells another story about a woman who slandered her and the spiritual benefit we can receive from praying for those who hate us and never judging, not even those who slander us…
And so, agapite mou adelfoi, brothers and sisters, St. Paul says “Let us fear then, lest perhaps, being left a promise to enter into His rest, any of you [us] seems to have come short of it” (Heb. 4:1). What excuse will we give to the Just Judge if we too don’t reach holiness? What will we say? We’ll have no words. We will stand in silence, filled with shame because the medicine was there for the taking, all our lives the pill of holiness is offered to us, all we have to do is swallow it, pick up our cross and follow Him, deny ourselves – struggle in other words. Woe to us if we don’t make a spiritual effort! Woe is us if we leave the acquisition of holiness up to people like Gerontissa Macrina, to the monastics. Woe to us! For all we need to do is give one, and God gives one hundred. May we then, through the prayers of holy Gerontissa Macrina, and all monastics, arrive at holiness even here in the world!