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This is a recording of a discussion I hosted over Skype with a group of Canadian Orthodox Christian women spread out across several Canadian provinces during Great Lent of 2015.

I encourage you to have a listen not because of what I, the donkey, say, rather because I read so much from the hymns themselves. It’s a really nice refresher of all the wonderful themes we’re about to participate in in the Holy Week services.

*CORRECTION: You will notice that I continually refer to St. Joseph the All-Comely (the son of Patriarch Jacob) as St. Joseph the Betrothed (who was espoused to the Theotokos). Please forgive my mistake; I didn’t realize this until I heard the recording.

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St. Niketas, Martyr of Serres

St. Paisios the Athonite responds to the following question:

‘Geronta, for how many years should one read the daily Synaxaria [the 12 volumes of the lives of the Saints, one for each month]?  “Throughout his life.  No matter how much is written in the Synaxaria, it is not enough.  What we are to derive from the Synaxaria is not the physical account of the lives of the saints, but the overflow, the meaning, of their lives.  The saints would be foolish if they revealed everything they experienced in secret.  Even the few things we do know about their lives provide us with sufficient help, as long as this knowledge pierces our heart, in order to put it into practice.”
From today’s Synaxarion, April 4

The holy New Martyr Nicetas was a Slav from Albania, but we know nothing of his family or his early life. He lived on Mt. Athos in the Russian monastery of Saint Panteleimon, then lived in the Skete of Saint Anne. Burning with a desire for martyrdom, he decided to travel to Serres. He arrived on March 30, 1808 (Great and Holy Monday) and stopped at a local monastery. In speaking to the igumen, he revealed that he was a hieromonk from Mt. Athos. At midnight, the igumen was making his customary rounds of the monastery when he saw someone standing in the moonlight praying on the church porch.

As he came closer, he could see that it was Father Nicetas, who revealed his intention to shed his blood for Christ. After speaking with the saint for a while, the igumen continued his rounds and left Father Nicetas to pray.

In the morning, Father Nicetas received Communion from the Presanctified Gifts, then went to a mosque outside the city. There he debated religion with a Moslem teacher and his disciples. Saint Nicetas approached one of them, noticing that he was lame.

The saint asked the man why he did not seek healing from his infirmity. The man said that it was impossible for him to be cured, since he had been born this way.

The monk replied that the man could be cured easily, if he would agree to obey him. The afflicted man looked at him with amazement and asked, “How must I obey you?”

“Believe in Jesus Christ as the one true God. If you are baptized, I promise you that you will be healthy and no trace of your lameness will remain.”

The man said nothing, but went to his teacher to report what the monk had said to him. The teacher questioned Saint Nicetas about where he had come from, and what he had said to his disciple.

Fearlessly, the warrior of Christ told him he was from Albania and had come to preach Christianity. Feeling pity for the lame man, he had advised him to believe in Christ so that he might receive his bodily health and the Kingdom of Heaven after death.

The teacher sent word to the mayor that a monk had come to their city and was speaking against their religion. Saint Nicetas was locked up in prison for the night, and the next day he was interrogated by Moslem religious leaders. Since they could not defeat him with reason, they tortured him and hanged him in the evening of Great and Holy Saturday in 1808. He was left hanging until Bright Tuesday, when Christians were given permission to take his body and bury it.

Two separate services have been composed in honor of Saint Nicetas, one in Slavonic and the other in Greek. A comparison of the two services reveals a difference of opinion about the saint’s national origin.

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Ladies, this post is for you. Men, you may also be Marthas, but mostly it’s us women running around the kitchen while the Saviour sits in the living room with the men and the Marys.

I think it’s common that when we think and speak of “being a Martha” what we mean is, “I do things; I don’t have the time or luxury of just standing in the icon corner praying. I have responsibilities that necessitate being a Martha.” I think most of us feel far too much like Martha than we’d like.

If you visit an Orthodox monastery you’ll quickly realize how busy the monastics are, how much they work, and how seemingly little time remains for private prayers after so much work. So how can they be said to “choose what is better”, how can they be said to focus on “the one thing needed”? Similarly, for us living in the world, with our work schedules, various activities, volunteer obligations, and endless to do lists, how can we possibly find the time to focus on the one thing needed?

Let’s take a moment and really consider what it means to be a Martha and what it means to be a Mary.

Luke 10:38-42

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

When the Lord rebuked Martha for complaining about her sister’s choice to sit on the floor rather than help her, he wasn’t condemning her work. He wasn’t saying what she was doing was unnecessary, unimportant or even superfluous. He spoke instead of Martha’s internal state, not her external works. What He was highlighting and disapproving of was not what she was doing but how she was feeling. He expressed His disapproval of her worry, her anxiety, her upset state of being. When he said Mary chose what is better, it was not to necessarily approve of her not working, but rather to highlight that her heart and mind were focused on Him, the one thing needed.

This is how we too can be Marys when we need to be Marthas, by calling our attention back to Christ in all we do. Are we rushing to our next appointment feeling anxious we won’t be on time? We need to say the Jesus Prayer. Are we doing the third load of laundry only to realize we shrunk a favourite sweater? We need to implore the Mother of God to keep us from becoming upset. Are we washing the dishes while also cooking supper and starting to feel flustered? We need to verbally glorify God.

This is what monastics are doing too. They’re being Marys while running around like Marthas. It’s not that they don’t set aside appropriate time for prayer, they do. But they also work like busy bees all the while struggling to be watchful, to guard their nous and heart from harmful thoughts, and to keep their focus on Christ through prayer.

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“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” “Most Holy Theotokos save me,” “Glory to God for all things,” these, and many more, are simple prayers that make being a Martha much more like being a Mary.

Christ reminds us,

“Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”

Externally we can be Marthas but internally we must be Marys. We must be praying and glorifying God and constantly reminding ourselves that all our running around is in fact spiritually detrimental if we allow our minds to be so distracted that we “forget our first love”.  Conversely, we can find our lives very busy and still choose the one thing needed if only we push ourselves to cry out to Christ to sanctify our every activity, so long as in our heart we have the peace of soul to “sit” at the Saviours’ feet. Only we know the balance between being busy and being anxious/ upset about many things; each of us must find a way to become a Mary even when life necessitates we be Marthas.

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Originally posted on Ancient Faith BlogsBehind the Scenes

By Constantina Palmer

Sweetness of Grace Stories of Christian Trial and VictorySTORY FOR BODY AND SOUL

Storytelling is a characteristic feature of our Orthodox Tradition. It is an ancient and effective means of sharing high ideals, universal truths, with the common man through images and examples relative to his experience in daily life. Not only is our history replete with books full of stories about holy desert dwellers, repentant sinners, sayings and anecdotes of anchorites and hermits, but the Gospel itself, Christ’s own teachings, are dispensed in the form of story, in parables.

The parables Christ describes in the Gospels contain profound depths of spiritual insight and wisdom, only discernible to those who wish to seek the truth. Parables are straightforward enough that the carnal man (i.e., the non-spiritual person) would believe he understands Christ’s teaching because, on the surface, he does. However, in reality the mystery of their depth remains hidden from him.

And the disciples came, and said unto him, “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” He answered and said unto them, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” (Matt. 13:10-11)

Every aspect of the spiritual life requires effort. And so, it should not surprise us that even grasping the deeper meaning of parables obliges humble-mindedness and spiritual insight. To him who makes the effort to dig deeper, Christ reveals hidden, divine truths: “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15).

In a similar fashion, stories of Orthodox life, mindset, and spiritual realities provide two layers of insight. The first is the basic level of understanding: “That’s a nice story,” is perhaps (at best) the impression a non-spiritual person has. The second layer, however, is capable of penetrating the heart. The content of the story first enters the intellectual mind and then, for those well-disposed, proceeds to have an effect (whether or not the person is cognizant of it) on the inner man.

Like all spiritual things, there is the exterior and the interior. Like Christ’s parables, stories of spiritual depth offer both.

When asked which was more important for salvation, bodily asceticism or interior vigilance, Saint Agathon said, “Man is like a tree. Bodily asceticism is the foliage, but interior vigilance is the fruit. Holy Scripture says that ‘every tree which does not bring forth good fruit shall be cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Mt.3:10). Therefore, we should focus our attention on the fruit. But a tree also needs the protection of its foliage, which is bodily asceticism.”

Obviously, Abba Agathon is speaking here of external good works and internal spiritual works, but the idea is the same. Man is of two natures: bodily and spiritual. Stories and parables that provide two layers speak to man as consisting of both body and soul.

STORY AS MOSAIC

Another element of spiritual stories is the communal nature inherent in them. A story is something to be shared. What good is a storyteller if she has no one to whom she can relay the story? Like love, the greatest Christian virtue, it is worthless unless we share it with others. Spiritual stories are a means by which a person supports and edifies his neighbour and is himself supported and edified in his own spiritual journey.

My own stories – stories of Christian trial and victory, of lessons learned and spiritual conversations with holy ones – do not merely involve a storyteller and her listener. They are themselves communal. They are not merely my own; they are also the story of others. They describe the spiritual warfare and spiritual riches of others. They are an exchange, a mosaic; they are both my story and their story. Like St. Nikolai Velimirovich, I too,

…am searching for those who have listened, my Lord, and I share my joy with them. I tell them about Your ways and Your wisdom, and they confirm what I relate. And we multiply our joy and share it. I listen to the tale of those who have listened, how You removed the stumbling blocks before their feet, and I add my own story, and our room is filled with heaven.

The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory is a mosaic of all the things I learned, saw, and heard as an Orthodox Christian striving to live the faith in South Korea, Greece, and here on the Atlantic-encircled island of Newfoundland. It contains examples of the sweet and difficult aspects of Christian life. These stories, my own and those of others, are a petition to take life in Christ seriously; they are a challenge to put into practice the Gospel precepts exactly in the life circumstances in which we find ourselves. They are a sharing of stories, intended for the whole person – body and soul – intended to inspire good works in the reader.

STORY AS MOTIVATION FOR ACTION

Spiritual stories, Christ’s parables, the sayings of the desert fathers (please God, even my own simple stories) differ from secular stories in that they are intended to motivate the listener to flee from vice and acquire virtue. When we hear a spiritual story the proper response is to learn and express this learning through our actions.

“I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw” (Proverbs 24:32).

Spiritual stories are like a feast, the storyteller a gracious host. A host decorates his banquet hall, offers the finest foods and wine, and invites all he knows to eat and drink so that they may be filled. Having a story fall on deaf ears is like a person who is invited to the beautiful feast, arrives, sees the sights, smells the aroma, but does not ingest the food. What good is there in a feast if it is not eaten? The same is true of spiritual stories. They must be digested. We must grind them in the mill of our hearts, extract a lesson and apply it with zeal. In this way we are ever vigilant, ever learning, ever applying the commandments of Christ. This is what it means in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers when it states the visitor “went away greatly edified” (Sayings, p. 52).

When we hear or read a spiritual story, when we receive “the words of life”, the fruit of these words ought to be born in our hearts. This fruit becomes wisdom, understanding, forgiveness, self-reflection, courage, patience, endurance, fortitude. The benefits of spiritual stories are unfathomable if only we are not passive when we hear them. We must greet them with an open and eager heart and display our gratitude through action.

This is true both of he who hears (or reads) spiritual stories, and he who relays them. As a storyteller, I myself must strive not to be a “teacher who teaches but doesn’t practice what she preaches” (as the ever-memorable Gerontissa Makrina of Portia was wont to say). I, like all listeners, must “produce fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8). Repentance is, in the truest sense, an action. It entails turning away from sin and toward God; this occurs first in one’s mindset and afterward is reflected in one’s deeds.

Often, when St. John Chrysostom would preach, his divinely-inspired words would evoke rapturous applause from the listening crowds, and his response would often be (in essence), “Don’t clap; rather, put my words into action.” The same can be said of every parable, every spiritual story, we hear or read. Let’s not merely clap our hands in enthusiasm, let’s show forth good works, let’s go away “greatly edified.”

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Some of my favorite spiritual stories are contained in the following books:
Practical Teachings on the Christian Life by Abba Dorotheos
Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters by St. Paisios the Athonite
An Athonite Gerontikion by Priestmonk Ionnikios Kotsonis
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Benedicta Ward
The Dialogues by St. Gregory Dialogos
Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon
The Prologue of Orhid by St. Nikolai Velimirovich

About Constantina Palmer

Constantina R. Palmer is from New Brunswick, a quaint province on Canada’s Atlantic coast. She lived in Thessaloniki, Greece for almost six years, during which time she received a Master’s degree in theology from Aristotle University, studied Cretan style iconography, as well as Byzantine chant. Not one to simply learn from books she also spent significant time at a number of women’s monasteries throughout northern Greece. Currently, she lives with her husband, an Orthodox priest, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, serving the only Orthodox parish on the island of Newfoundland. She is also a social worker. Constantina is the author of two books: The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery and The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory.

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kyra-sarakosti.jpg(Originally posted here in 2012, when I still lived in Greece)

I don’t know the practices and customs of other Orthodox countries, but in Greece many laity try to observe what is called the “three-day” (trimero), the first three days of Great Lent, by abstaining from all food and drink. From what I gather it is a custom always practiced in Orthodox monasteries. I’ve been told it used to be kept for the first six days in earlier times.

The idea behind it is to enter the Fast as strictly as possible, fasting from all food and drink the first three days then on Wednesday communing at the first Pre-sanctified Liturgy of Great Lent. In Greece the Pre-sanctified Liturgies are celebrated on Wednesday and Friday mornings.

For those who are unable to abstain from all food and drink I know it is also customary to eat flat bread (something the bakers make special for “Kathara Devtera”, Clean Monday) and halva. Others who try to keep the three-day a bit more strictly eat some nuts and drink some juice in the evenings. Others fast from food but take drink throughout the three days. I’ve heard that it is common to at very least not eat cooked food on Clean Monday, (hence the flat bread and halva). I suppose people fast as strictly as their strength and health allows them. But as our priest said this morning, “For those who can keep the ‘three-day’ they will find it makes the rest of the Fast much more manageable.”

However you observe the first three days of the Great Fast I wish you all good strength and a productive Lent! May we contend well so that we will be found worthy to ascend with Christ to Golgotha, and see His Glorious Resurrection!

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While our Orthodox Mission, Holy Lady of Vladimir, still holds weekend services at Queen’s College, this post is about our domestic chapel of St. Nektarios.

I’m not a great photographer, but I wanted to show you how the domestic chapel of St. Nektarios looks now. I had written about our house chapel last year, but, to my great joy, we’ve made some additions.

My father is a very accomplished carpenter and I had been telling him how I wanted him to make us an iconostasis for our domestic chapel. Because we didn’t have proper church furniture the icons I painted of Christ, the Mother of God and St. Nektarios were relegated to the side of the chapel instead of in front of the altar. So, I was in a hurry to have something made.

The original plan was for my father to take measurements when he and his wife visited us in the Fall (of 2016). However, we ended up deciding on the spur of the moment, two days before dad was to leave, to build stands instead. Off we went to the hardware store to rent a table saw and buy supplies.

While dad started on making icon stands from scratch with no pattern, his wife Angela and I went to the fabric store. She’s a talented seamstress and equally as enthusiastic about fun projects as my dad and me and so she thought she may be able to sew some coverings on my sewing machine while dad built the stands.

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I regret that there is no photo evidence of the state of my backyard while dad and I assembled the stands together: he sawing and hammering, me sanding and crack filling. (Fr. John would have been there to help but he got called away on a pastoral matter). It was a ton of fun and I was more than ecstatic about the way the chapel would look once we were finished.

In short order the icon stands and the Proskimidi table were ready, the coverings were also ready. All Fr. John and I had to do was varnish/ stain the wood (which we’ll do in the summer – when we can do it outdoors), hang the coverings, and acquire gold crosses to be attached to the fabric. We were able to get the crosses during our trip to the mainland in October; we attached them with fabric glue, but we have yet to attach the large cross to the altar covering.

There is still more to be done. I would like to buy three oil lamps to hang from the ceiling above Christ, Panagia and St. Nektarios. But, I’m trying to not be rash in furnishing the chapel, one thing at a time. I also plan to cover the large wooden candle stand with painted canvas like I’ve marveled at in Orthodox monasteries. (You can sort of see an example of a canvas-covered candle here; it’s to the right, in the middle of the smaller candles).

This particular candle stand (shown below before the “Royal Doors” – or where Royal Doors would be) represents the fiery sword that prohibited entrance to Eden after the Fall. That is why it is placed here in front of the Royal Doors during the Divine Liturgy, after the consecration, while the priest communes.

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You can see all the snow outside the window. This photo was taken at Christmas

Words can’t express how grateful I am to have a chapel in my own home (something I always wanted). My gratitude is doubled by the fact that Fr. John has an Orthodox chapel in which to hold daily Morning and Evening Prayer, not to mention vigils.

I’m a vain sort, but I’ll be honest and say that ever since my father built the icon stands and the chapel took on more of “chapel” look I try and make sure I never miss a Vespers service (I’m unable to attend Matins because of work). It’s a comfort to stand in the oil-lamp lit space and pray in front of icons that we have collected during our travels, and moreso in front of icons that I had the honour to paint.

The icons I painted – pictured in the below collage – are as follows: (Top left corner) St. Gregory Palamas (he is to Christ’s right in the photo). Below that is an icon of St. Demetrios (this is a copy of an icon I painted – my godson has the original); Christ the High Priest and St. Nektarios (as well as the Mother of God depicted elsewhere); St. John Maximovitch (bottom left) – which I just finished last week; and St. John the Theologian (bottom right).

It comes as a great consolation to me to have the icons I painted – icons that took me countless hours to paint – in our chapel. I can’t speak for other iconographers, but for me, when I paint an icon I don’t feel ownership over it. I may be a bit more critical of my own work than I would be of others, but at some point the icons I paint stop being my work and become the countenances of the persons depicted. And yet, I know each inch of the icons in intimate detail, they are so personal and yet so distinctly their own. It’s hard to explain, perhaps I’m just babbling. So, I’ll suffice it to say I’m deeply humbled that images I painted with my own unworthy hand now adorn an Orthodox chapel. I thank God for my talent and hope He accepts my offering.

Lastly, I want to say while I love our domestic chapel, my joy would more than quadruple if our parish were able to establish a proper Orthodox church here on the island of Newfoundland. Amen, so be it.

Please keep us in your holy prayers!

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Elder Ephraim with his mother, Gerontissa Theophano

My own preliminary comment: Below is a very beautiful article posted on Pravoslavie, compiled and translated with love, I’m sure. May God forgive their sins for the hard work and spiritual care that went into presenting this information. I encourage you all to take the time to read this. It’s very touching and inspiring. May we have Gerontissa’s blessing!

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On Gerontissa Theophano, the mother of Archimandrite Ephraim of Philotheou and Arizona

by Olga Rozhneva, Olga Zatushevskaya                                                                                    Translated by Jesse Dominick Pravoslavie.ru  11 / 11 / 2016

(Source) The Monastery of the Archangel Michael on the Greek island of Thassos is a podvoriye of Philotheou Monastery on Mt. Athos. Gerontissa[1] Theophano, the mother of Elder Ephraim of Philotheou and Arizona, spent the final years of her life there and departed to the Lord on February 27, 1986. The gerontissa of the monastery, Abbess Ephraima, blessed us to record stories of Gerontissa Theophano, as well as recollections about her from sisters of the monastery.

In the Monastery of Archangel Michael and generally in Elder Ephraim’s spiritual family everyone calls Gerontissa Theophano “Grandma.” “Grandpa” is Elder Joseph the Hesychast, the spiritual father of Archimandrite Ephraim, and “Grandma”—Gerontissa Theophano. About how this common woman, spending the large part of her life in the world and having raised three sons, one of whom became an Athonite abbot and great elder, ascended to such spiritual heights, we will try to speak in this article.

We hope that the example of this Orthodox Christian, having combined within herself the virtues of motherhood and monasticism, would inspire our God-loving readers, both laity and nuns, to try to imitate her measure of strength in podvigs and prayerful labor. We also hope that readers of this article will come to love Mother Theophano, and begin to turn to her for prayerful help and beseech her intercession and teaching, undoubtingly believing that she has found boldness before the Lord God, Whom she so loved and Whom she sincerely served with her whole heart until her final breath.

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Gerontissa Theophano (left) with Gerontissa Macrina

Person of prayer

Gerontissa Theophano (in the world Victoria Moraitis) had true maternal love for people. Her character was strict, but with love. She was severe first with herself and only then with others, with those whose souls were given to her to care for by the Lord, for her children and the young novices. Gerontissa was a person of prayer, and moreover was quite merciful and gracious, despite her severity.

She was always a faithful woman, regularly going to church, but in early childhood she lived without any special podvigs and had no elder who could direct her in the spiritual life. She loved to visit new places and go on various trips. But after a fire in her house, and after a miracle associated with this fire, she turned to Christ with her whole heart. Soon afterwards the Lord sent her a spiritual father.

“All together we’re not worth one Victoria”

As is known from Elder Ephraim’s book My Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Fr. Ephraim (Karaiannis), a disciple of Elder Joseph who had left the Holy Mountain and settled in the city of Volos, became her family’s spiritual father. He became the spiritual father of the community of which Victoria and her friends were members. Some of them got married and others chose the monastic path in life. Victoria stood out among them; she was so modest and God-loving, and had such a gift of prayer, vigil, and philanthropic works that her spiritual father Elder Ephraim said of her: “All together we’re not worth one Victoria.”

Podvig in the world

Victoria’s husband, Dmitry Moraitis, was also a believer. He went to church but didn’t have the same zeal for God that his wife had. However, he never put up any obstacles in her spiritual life and podvigs. For example, Victoria constantly labored in fasting, both during and outside the Church fasts. Preparing to receive the Holy Mysteries of Christ, she, according to pious Greek tradition, kept the so-called “triimeron”—a complete three-day fast, eating absolutely nothing for three days. At the same time she had to do all of the necessary housework, and raise her children. After three full days of abstention she communed of the Holy Mysteries of Christ and would eat a little food that day, to begin again the next day preparing for Communion, and, accordingly, to begin a new three-day fast.

At night she often awoke and arose to pray, locking herself in the kitchen. She prayed on bended knee, with tears and many prostrations. Her son John, the future Elder Ephraim, would say to her: “Mama, when you finish praying, wake me up and we’ll pray a little together.” Thus, from childhood, thanks to his mother, he loved nighttime prayer. When he was small it was hard for him to pray for a long time, but he tried to arise and pray at least a little bit, as much as he was able.

As I already said, Gerontissa Theophano’s husband allowed her everything connected with fasting and the spiritual life, but himself did not seek to emulate her in her podvigs. He was a so-called “moderate Christian.” He had his own work—a small carpenter’s workshop, where he worked with his sons, from an early age teaching them his craft and dreaming of leaving them his workshop as an inheritance. In the end this work was inherited by Elder Ephraim’s older brother Nicholas. He works there to this day, now together with his sons and grandsons.

In Wartime

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Elder Ephraim’s family

Dmitry and Victoria had four children. First they had a daughter, Elena, born in 1924. Victoria was an orphan, and before marriage she had to clean the neighbors’ houses to feed herself. So from eleven years old she was out in society. One of the women she worked for was especially kind to her, took care of her, and even helped her get married. When Victoria had a daughter, she named her after this woman, Elena. Elenitsa, as they called her at home, died in early childhood. Then three sons were born to Victoria: Nicholas (1926), John (the future Elder Ephraim, 1928) and Christos (1930).

During the Second World War Greece was occupied. A famine began in Volos and other cities. They had to collect and gather grass to survive. Additionally, the peaceful inhabitants were constantly in danger from the occupiers, but Victoria’s prayer saved her family and children in these difficult years. More than once the future elder and his brothers avoided death literally by a miracle.

In these years, to help his parents somehow feed the family, John and his brothers would haggle for every little thing at the city market: bagels, quinine, buttons, matches… One of these days, when John and Nicholas had just gone off to trade, the market was surrounded by Germans who seized everyone there, saying that everyone would be immediately shot. Just a few minutes before, Nicholas had briefly left the market for some necessity, and therefore he wasn’t captured, but John was among those whom the Germans took to be shot.

At that last moment the residents convinced the Germans to release at least the women and children. John was about fifteen years old, but he was short and thin from hunger and of weak health, looking younger than his age. In Greece in those years the young boys wore short pants, like shorts, in winter or summer. The elder was a head shorter than the boys his age and at fifteen still wore these short pants. In those years clothes were generally worn for a long time, literally to tatters. It saved him: thanks to his children’s clothes, small stature and thinness he passed for a child, and at the last moment they released him together with the women and other children, and the Germans shot all the boys and men that day.

Another time at the same market the soldiers captured and beat the elder’s older brother Nicholas half to death, for no reason.

They often saw people hanged in those days. In those years they lived in an atmosphere of constant fear and terror. Only faith and prayer supported Victoria and her family. When the bombing began, all their neighbors fled to the bomb shelter or hid in basements, but Victoria stood on her knees before her icons and prayed. So strong was her faith.

Notice from the Lord

From the very beginning Victoria knew that one of her children would become a monk. She received two notices from the Lord about it. Here’s the story about how I learned about these notifications. When I spoke with Gerontissa Ephraimia and the sisters of the Monastery of the Archangel Michael they couldn’t exactly remember what kind of notice it was.

Then Gerontissa Ephraimia concluded: “There is only one way to find out how it was: we have to talk with someone that Gerontissa Theophano personally told about this event, with some person who knew her well in her lifetime.” Then I mentally asked Gerontissa Theophano and Elder Ephraim to send me such a person, because I didn’t want to write something not corresponding to truth.

On the last day of my stay in Greece, when I was at one of the elder’s monasteries, the Monastery of the Ascension of the Lord in the village of Proti in the district of Serros, a group of pilgrims from the city of Volos came there—the birthplace of the elder and Mother Theophano. Among the pilgrims was Elena Ksenia; learning that I came from Arizona, she spoke with me and said she had been a spiritual child of Elder Ephraim since she was twelve (she is now sixty-five). Immediately after that she began to tell me, of her own initiative, the story of this vision, for which my own narration would not be good enough. I recorded the story in her words:

“Gerontissa Theophano, whom I met in Portaria, once told my mother about how the Lord had sent her two signs about Elder Ephraim. They were like visions between dreams and reality. The first time she saw three crowns flying to heaven. Two of them were laurel crowns, and one was golden and this crown flew in the direction of the Holy Mountain. She was pregnant then and didn’t know then how many children she would still have.

When her third child was born, the future Elder Ephraim, in the first forty days after birth, one day, also between sleep and waking, she heard a voice: ‘Victoria, come forth, look at your son, an elder, who came from the Holy Mountain.’ She thought in amazement: ‘How can it be? I just bore this child! When did he manage to become a monk?’ But still she went outside and saw the elder: her newborn child a few days from birth, but in the form and image of a hieromonk, in full abbatial vestments, decorated with flowers and gold.”

“Not halfway, but completely and exactly as demanded”

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Elder Ephraim in his youth

Knowing that John should become a monk, Victoria was especially exacting towards him. But she was a loving, albeit strict mother. The elder’s brother Nicholas notes that she always demanded that the children precisely carry out her instructions: “Not halfway, but completely and exactly as demanded.”

In 1947, Elder Ephraim left for Athos. His father didn’t want to let him leave the house and didn’t bless him to become a monk: he needed a helper at the carpentry workshop, where there was always a lot of work. Then John’s mother helped him secretly leave. She went against her husband’s will in this case, because she knew that the will of God was that her son become a monk.

When John turned nineteen and the family’s confessor, Fr. Ephraim, blessed him to go to Athos, his mother helped her son prepare in secret everything he needed for the trip. His father, knowing his son’s strong desire to leave for Athos, strictly controlled him and required him to report in on where he was and when he would return. At that time there were catechism courses at their parish, something like a school for youth, which John regularly visited. His father didn’t allow him to go to these lessons, which his spiritual father, Fr. Ephraim, held. On the day he left for Athos his mother advised him to write a note to his father that he had gone to the catechism class and would return later. In his talks the elder would say that even this corresponded to reality: for how many catechetical lessons did he have to endure on Athos in the beginning?

John left a note, grabbed the things he had prepared and headed on foot for the port, to the pier to get on the boat to Athos. His father, returning from work, asked Victoria where their son was. She showed him the note and, having read it, he calmed down. However, later, when the hour had passed when John usually returned from the lessons, his father got worked up and began to interrogate his wife. In the end she was obliged to reveal the whole truth. Then his father, angrily shot back: “This will not be,” grabbed a bike and dashed for the pier, hoping to catch up with his son and bring him back home. Along the way he fell off the bike and hurt himself pretty badly, such that he was in no condition to continue his pursuit. He had to return home with nothing. In his conversations the elder concluded that, obviously, it was the will of God that he got on the boat that day and sailed for Mt. Athos.

Accepting the monastic tonsure

He wrote his mother just one letter from Athos, in which he wrote: “Here, mama, we don’t wash ourselves with water. We wash ourselves with tears.” Then there was no news from him for many years. As we know, the first time the elder left Mt. Athos, according to the last will of Elder Joseph, after his death, was to visit his hometown of Volos, and take upon himself the spiritual direction of the sisterhood which at that time lived in one house in the village of Stagiares in the Pelion region. It was then that he met his mother again, and, as we know, she didn’t even recognize him—so much had the elder changed over the years, spent in ascetic labors.

In 1962, with the blessing of Elder Ephraim, the sisterhood from Volos bought a small plot in the village of Portaria on the mountain in Upper Volos to build a monastery there. There was no monastery there before that. The miraculous icon of the Mother of God which had been in the house in Stagiares before that was immediately transferred here.

After transferring the icon to the new place they began to work on building repairs, and the beautification of the territory, and in 1963 the sisterhood relocated to Portaria. Soon Elder Ephraim celebrated the first tonsure in the newly-constructed monastery—over his own mother Victoria, who was named in tonsure Theophano, and her friend who was named Matrona. Elder Ephraim named his mother in honor of the blessed queen Theophano († 893/894), the wife of Leo the Wise. The elder greatly reveres her and therefore named his mother in her honor, and after her many of the elder’s abbesses and nuns also received this name.

The first and best novice

After her tonsure, Gerontissa Theophano did not stay in Portaria, but returned home for some time. By this time her husband, Elder Ephraim’s father, had already died, but her youngest son, Christos, was not yet married. Gerontissa lived at home with her youngest son until he got married, and then finally relocated to Portaria, to the monastery.

Soon after the tonsure of his mother, Elder Ephraim tonsured Maria who he named Macrina—she became the abbess of the monastery in Portaria. Gerontissa Theophano was her sponsor in the tonsure, and therefore Matushka Macrina considered her her gerontissa and spiritual mother. For many years in Portaria they shared one cell and continued in joint prayerful podvigs, as they had done in the world, in Victoria’s home, locking themselves at night in the kitchen, to spend hours kneeling in collective prayer. They were great women of prayer. The locals bear witness: they saw how two pillars of fire would rise from the monastery at night to Heaven—the prayers of Gerontissas Theophano and Macrina.

Thus Gerontissa Theophano became the first and best novice of her own son. As the nuns say, she had true obedience and unceasing prayer, and therefore she had a lot of temptations.

Gerontissa was always the first to church

Gerontissa Theophano lived in Portaria until 1983. By that time her health had worsened, and the climate in Portaria did not suit her. Then, because of her sickness, Elder Ephraim decided to transfer her to the newly-opened Monastery of the Archangel Michael on the island of Thassos.

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The Holy Monastery of Archangel Michael (island of Thassos)

During the final period of Gerontissa Theophano’s life in the monastery on Thassos, the sisters said that she was always the first to church. She always stood during the services, never sitting anywhere. In Greek churches, in addition to stasidi along the wall, usually there are rows of chairs, usually in the back but sometimes in the front of the church, and the faithful periodically sit down to rest, because services in monasteries are very long.

Gerontissa Theophano always prayed standing with her prayer rope, never letting go of her prayer rope. Because of her unceasing prayer she endured much from demons who she heard and saw firsthand. She told the sisters that only had she just entered her cell to rest before the night services, and lied down upon her bed, when demons came to her, not allowing her to sleep. They called her: “Hey, old woman! old woman!” and pulled her from every side, tossing her blanket, and she saw them. Once they pestered her so much that she absolutely could not fall asleep in the evening. They finally left her not long before the beginning of the service, and matushka dozed off. Then came the pounding on the semantron[2], gathering the sisters for the service. Seeing that she hadn’t come to the church, Sister Isidora went to her cell to wake her. She began to knock on the door of her cell, and Matushka Theophano thought it was the demons again harassing her, and answered from behind the door: “Go away, stop hitting me!” Later she said the devil beat her all night, not letting her sleep.

The final test

When gerontissa turned 92 (Decemebr 20, 1983) she had a stroke and became paralyzed. Until the very last day before her illness she independently took care of herself and helped in the kitchen, making food for the sisters and teaching them how to make prosphora and various other household things. She was a great homemaker, and whatever she undertook turned out well. Moreover, she was very hard-working, never stopping for rest, all the time either praying or working.

The first Lent after her stroke everyone thought she would die. Elder Ephraim came to Thassos from the Holy Mountain and spent forty days—the whole of Great Lent—with his mother. He saw a great number of demons all around her, who gave her soul no rest. He began to fervently pray and beseech the Lord to deliver his mama from the demonic powers. By his prayers, Gerontissa received relief from her illness, came to and remained lucid until her blessed repose which occurred two years later. In one of his recorded talks, Elder Ephraim talks about his mother’s blessed repose.

Elder Ephraim’s story about the blessed repose of Gerontissa Theophano

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Elder Ephraim at his mother’s grave

“The climate on the island of Thassos suited her better than in Portaria, so I moved her there. She gradually drew near to the end of her life. Two years before her death, at the age of 92, she was paralyzed. From that time she didn’t completely raise herself from her bed. But, glory to God, as the Gospel says: And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life (Mt. 19:29).

This is what happened with my mother: during her illness she was surrounded by caring daughters—the sisters of the monastery who took care of her with great zeal. And where in the world will you find such love now?! Her nurse, one of the sisters of the monastery, so loved my mother that there are no words! She was so nice, so kind, and even slept together with her, head to head…

When a crisis came during my mama’ illness, something happened which happens very rarely, but when it happens it’s only with spiritual people for the sake of testing them and for gaining experience. It happened one night. Mama was as if dead already several days—she didn’t eat, didn’t drink, and didn’t open her eyes. She didn’t drink a single drop of water. She was dehydrated, with closed eyes—how dying people usually look…

When she was in such a state I was there with her, together with the nun-nurses and Gerontissa. It was dark, lampadas were burning. The night before, at about the same time, her eyes opened at some point. She opened her eyes and looked around, as if she was expecting something to happen or that already happened, with some kind of uneasiness, as if listening to something, or seeing something or someone. This was the first time after being unconscious for so many days that she showed some attention to the world around her. Lying, because she was unable to move, with open eyes, she looked all around, to the right, left, up, and down. And as the moments flowed by, her face more strongly revealed a state of terrible agony and terrible fear—a whole river of fear. I saw such fear reflected on her face as when some killer is drawing near with a knife, ready to cut you.

I began to cover her with the sign of the Cross, repeating aloud the Jesus Prayer to calm her. I understood that what was happening was a demonic temptation. After a while the danger passed, and the invisible powers departed. Mama calmed down, and she was still conscious. Then I asked her: ‘Mama, what happened? What’s with you’—‘Oh… so many, they are so many!’ And from that moment mama began to pray: ‘O Mother of God, save me! O Mother of God, save me!’ Day and night! From that point her mouth never stopped. Day and night she besought salvation from the Mother of God.

It is striking that she had no thoughts, only prayer—sick people usually easily succumb to thoughts. By her way of life—constant podvigs and labors—mama acquired exceptional patience, and this patience helped her maintain prayer this whole time. I asked her: ‘What happened?’—‘The Mother of God helps me!’ And again the prayer continued: ‘O Mother of God, save me! O Mother of God, save me!’

After some time, when the torment was over, she completely calmed down and shut her eyes. The next day at the exact same time her eyes again opened. The same fear and agony was again displayed on her face. The exact same scenario happened again. It was all quite excruciating.

Then I wondered: why does the devil have authority over this holy soul? I, of course, understood that this temptation was allowed so she could obtain a crown, that through this ordeal she could acquire boldness before God. And at some point, when she was in such a state, I said to myself: ‘It’s not fitting that this should continue. It’s time to end this.’ I went to my cell, got on my knees and began to pray: ‘O Lord, I beg Thee, do one of two things. Either take her right now, that she could have peace already, because she is worthy of peace, or banish the devil away from this holy soul. She has already labored for Thee so much, and now her time for rest has arrived.’ This is how I prayed.

When her eyes opened again the next day at the same time, she was calm. ‘Mama, how are you?’—‘They left…’ The trial was over. From that very moment began the blessed final period of her blessed life. Days passed in this blessed state. Her appearance gradually changed, she became more and more beautiful. Of course, this beauty was not physical, but spiritual. I wanted to photograph her. The grace in her was clearly apparent. Thus she gradually drew nearer to death.”

“I saw how her soul ascended unhindered to Heaven”

“The following year, after Nativity, in Christmastide, I went to the monastery to see her again,” continues Elder Ephraim’s narration. “She spoke and understood what was happening, and unceasingly repeated the prayer. In the final moments of her life her face was transfigured, blessedness shining upon it. She turned to the right, revealing her widely shining eyes and glanced off to the side as if she saw something there. In that moment I felt such Paschal joy in my soul, such resurrection, as if I had suddenly gathered the grace of ten Paschal nights.

It was the first time I felt this in my life. Of course, when my elder Joseph departed to the Lord there was something special then too, but here it happened with my own relative. I felt such happiness at that moment, and also felt and saw … I don’t know, in what manner it happened, but I saw how her soul ascended unhindered to Heaven.

When the doctor arrived he couldn’t believe that she had already died—she looked so alive. Her body was warm and soft, like the body of someone living. ‘Lord, have mercy! I can’t believe it!’ the doctor exclaimed. It was incorruption. I told the doctor that Christ said: death is but a dream, and every person will awaken on the day of the Second Coming at the sound of the archangel’s trump.

When the doctor left, we sewed her up in a monastic habit, with three crosses sewed on top. Meanwhile I continued to feel such strong Paschal joy, that I wanted to go out on the street and sing ‘Christ is Risen!’ She was so beautiful after death. She was 95, but she looked like she was 15. It was the result of her whole life, all her labors; it was a reward for all her labors.”

Her relics were found to be “very beautiful”

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Gerontissa Theophano’s grave. There is no cross because her relics have been removed

Gerontissa Theophano’s grave at the cemetery. There is no cross on it because her relics have already been removed.

The sisters of the monastery told me that when Gerontissa Theophano’s coffin was carried to the monastery cemetery, sheep came and doves flew over. The sheep managed to get themselves out of their pen, ran to the grave, all bleating at the same time, and turned around and ran back to their pen. Then from somewhere above their appeared a flock of doves which flew over the grave and disappeared into the heights.

Her relics were found to be “very beautiful.” In Greece the tradition still exists of taking bones around the third year after death and placing them in an ossuary—not only on Athos but in other monasteries and even among the laity in regular cemeteries. By the color and smell of the relics you can hypothesize about the postmortem state of the soul of the departed. For example, there are cases when the body does not dissolve, or the relics emit a foul odor—then it is considered that things are bad for the soul of the departed and it stands in need of prayerful help. Family members begin to order forty-day prayers for the dead and distribute alms for the repose of the soul. There are particular signs by which you can know that the soul of the departed found grace from the Lord: an amber color to the relics and a sweet fragrance emanating from them. It even happens that the relics of some Orthodox acquire incorruptibility.

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The Elder with his mother’s holy skull

So, when they opened Gerontissa Theophano’s grave, her relics were fragrant and had the most amber color, by which it could be determined that her soul found salvation. A reliquary was made for her head which is now kept in the Monastery of the Archangel Michael on the island of Thassos.

Through the prayer of holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us!

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