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page_1(As posted on Byzatine Texas)  Matushka Constantine R. Palmer has written another book – this one entitled “The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory.” I earlier interviewed her about her book “The Scent of Holiness” a few years back; a title that continues to be quite a popular read. She has again agreed to answer a few questions for the blog about her latest book in the following interview. Enjoy!


So what prompted this second book? I know your first publication was well received and it seems to be a staple in many church bookstores that I’ve visited.

A large impetus for this book was all the “untold stories” that I had mentally compiled even while writing The Scent of Holiness. I felt that I couldn’t tell all the stories I would have liked to because they wouldn’t necessarily fit in the confines of a book predominantly about women’s monasteries. I believe I snuck one story about my theology professor in the first book, and maybe one about my parish priest from Thessaloniki. But even then I was aware that those stories fell a little outside the perimeters I had constructed for the book.

It wasn’t until one of the sisters started asking me about writing a second book that I even thought seriously about trying to present various stories of my experiences and conversations not only in Greece but in South Korea and North America.

But to be frank, the honest truth behind why I wrote this book is that I don’t like to keep things to myself. I’m excitable and I like to share stories that inspire me because I get excited and inspired all over again when I see that my stories resonate with others. I also felt like after the first book my readers would know me well enough that I could perhaps share some of the more weighty experiences without scaring them off. I hope and believe these stories compliment the light-hearted elements of The Scent of Holiness and bring out another layer of Christian spiritual struggle.

You took a very circuitous path to end up in a mission church in Newfoundland. Can you speak a little about the journeys through Greece, South Korea, to your new home in Canada? How did that all work out and do you feel like a Newfie yet?
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In 2006 I finished an amazing undergraduate degree in a Great Books program in New Brunswick (where we’re originally from). Around the same time my husband, John (now Fr. John), was finishing his Masters degree in Patristics at Durham University in England. While we have never regretted our choice of studies, they didn’t exactly provide us with a means of living right off the bat.Friends of ours had previously lived in South Korea teaching English and this inspired my brother and sister-in-law to take the leap and move there. For anyone who has ever heard my brother speak you will know his power of persuasion was enough to convince us to do likewise. So we moved to South Korea mostly to pay off student loan debt but also to buy some time while we tried to figure out our next steps in life.

While living in Seoul we heard about the School of Modern Greek Language in Thessaloniki where foreign students would learn Greek and then proceed to study at Aristotle University. At the time my husband wanted to continue his studies so we were looking for a university anyway. While we spoke of different European schools I really wanted us to go to an Orthodox country to further immerse ourselves in Orthodoxy. Our spiritual father agreed that Greece would be a good next step and we headed in that direction just a few months after we finished teaching English in Seoul for one year.

In Greece, as most may know of me, I studied theology as well. My Master’s thesis was on the iconographer and the theology of icons more generally. During the nearly six years we lived there we spent significant amounts of time at women’s monasteries and I also learned to paint icons and I (somewhat) learned Byzantine chant.

Midway through our Greek adventure we came back to Canada one summer to visit our families and while visiting with an abbess she suggested we meet Bishop Irenee of Quebec City, the OCA bishop responsible for Eastern Canada. (He is now Archbishop Irenee of Ottawa and all of Canada). We began getting to know the bishop and about a year later Fr. John was ordained to the deaconate. However, he continued to serve in Greece until his PhD studies were finished.

It was very important for us to be able to return to the East Coast as Canada is so large you really connect with where you live regionally. Vladyka spoke to us about trying out a few places: St. John’s, Newfoundland was one of those places. My father is from Corner Brook (the second largest town on Newfoundland – population 20,000). So I wasn’t unfamiliar with Newfoundland and Newfoundland culture or dialect (despite living on the mainland for over 35 years my father still has an accent).

We visited the community here in St. John’s after Fr. John’s ordination to the priesthood in 2013. We arrived late on Lazarus Saturday and stayed until after St. Thomas Sunday. Fr. John served every single day; very quickly we both felt that this was where we should be.

There has been a OCA mission in St. John’s since 2003; the first two years of which there was a priest. In the following eight years the mission had two other priests come, but each only stayed briefly. While the mission now has a permanent priest it still does not have a permanent location for our chapel. We use a chapel at the Anglican seminary here which means we have to set-up and take-down the chapel every weekend. Glory to God, since 2015 we also have a house-chapel that we use for daily services (Matins and Vespers) as well as for vigils when feasts fall during weekdays. [If any reader would like to be the benefactor of a small, but beautiful, Orthodox church on the island of Newfoundland please contact us! :)]

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My kindergartners, Seoul 2007

When you come to a place where there is only one Orthodox mission on a huge island with no priest it makes it very difficult to turn away and head elsewhere. Through the grace of God we have managed to stay here despite the strong winds (both literally and figuratively). We collected a lot of blessings both in South Korea (with its two Orthodox churches in Seoul) and in Greece and owe a great debt to God. Perhaps I could say just as we moved to South Korea to pay off student loans, we’ve moved to Newfoundland to pay off spiritual ones.

The book has what I might characterize as a distinctly feminine voice to it. I don’t mean that this book would only appeal to women – far from it – but in the same way some religious works come off as inescapably paternal. This text reverberates with a lot of the topics that worked so well in your first book. Has anyone else said something similar?

Like you, I in no way believe this book, nor The Scent of Holiness, should only appeal to women, though I know some think that way. Although my books are written from a woman’s perspective I still think there is something for everyone.

I’m not one for thinking we need to categorize everything into male and female. For instance, the Orthodox Church is often seen as a cut-and-dry, male-ruled institution, but I do not see this. I mean, yes, our hierarchs are men, our priests and deacons are men. However, do you walk into a fully adorned Orthodox temple and think, “Wow, this place is rather starkly paternal”? No. You think, “My goodness this is beautiful!” because Orthodoxy speaks to the human person. It is so distinctly human and spiritual at the same time. This is what testifies to it being the Truth. It appeals to the whole person. I’ve never heard that in the Heavenly Kingdom there will be a women’s section and men’s section. I’ve just heard saints will experience grace in proportion to the good works they did in life and their love for God and His Church.

The Sweetness of Grace, as you’ve noted, contains similar topics as in my first book. I think this is reflective of the experiences and conversations that have meaning for me, whether they involve nuns, monks, priests or laypeople. With my books I am trying to appeal to the whole person. My personal lens is a feminine one, but I don’t think it distracts from the message, which is – at its core – an Orthodox Christian message. I came to Orthodoxy as an adult. I learned at the feet of nuns. I try to take in everything my spiritual father has taught me by his words and deeds. I live on an island with a small Orthodox community composed of various Orthodox ethnicities. This is my lived-experience of Orthodoxy. This all has contributed to my desire to live and express Orthodoxy not as a religion but as a faith, a way of life. I try to do this in my personal life just as I do in my books. When people ask me about my “religion” I tell them it is not a religion; it is, as described in the Scriptures, the Way. It is the way of living, the way of thinking, the way of loving and the way of dying.

The things that I value are the things I have noted in my travels. Some of these things stand out to me because I’m a woman, some because of my personality, still others because of my upbringing. But I’m hoping that through prayer and reflection I am able to frame those experiences in a manner consistent with our Orthodox tradition, both written and oral, which is composed of both male and female voices.

This book in no way shrinks from the “mystical” aspects of a life lived inside the Church. While not all the stories touch on that facet of the spiritual life, there are a number of stories about how God and His saints are active in our lives. Thinking about my own pastoral experiences, I think at least anecdotally I can say that such experiences are not common “parish talk” in many of our churches. What accounts for this do you think?

I am hesitant to offer an opinion on this because I genuinely don’t know the answer. There are likely a variety of reasons for this. All I can say is the stories about the mystical aspects of Orthodox life were collected over ten years, having lived on three different continents and having recorded such stories when I heard them. These are not all my experiences; they are a collection of experiences.

newf3Having said that I truly believe God and the saints are a lot more active in all our lives than we perhaps perceive. It is God who makes the sun to shine, the grass to grow, the flowers to blossom and the wind to blow. This is our everyday reality. But who reflects thus? Few.

I find our minds are so occupied with our to-do lists, with the cares and concerns of everyday life that we can easily overlook the mystical aspects of life. And that’s okay. That happens. I know it happens to me anyway. But life is so much more full, more meaningful, more bearable when we consciously take the time to seek God and the intercession of the saints, to make them apart of our everyday life. Effort is required for us to truly feel the presence of God and the saints in our lives. It’s like a friendship; it is two-sided. They will not invite themselves over for coffee unless we make room for that friendship.

We shouldn’t place too much value on the miraculous either though. We should look at the dry spells as blessings also. We should see God’s presence in our lives even in the most dark, most difficult situations. He is always there, the saints are always there. We just need to call on them more often: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8).

What was your process for in selecting stories and did you have any help in organizing the material?

I first wrote out all the stories I wanted to include but felt I needed a unique way of presenting them to compliment the 33 Knots of the first book. I have always loved the Beatitudes and while writing the book I often found myself singing them so I started playing with the idea of grouping stories into thematic sections within the framework of the Beatitudes. In order to do this I needed to better understand them so I read a few different Patristic interpretations of them. This filled out their deeper meaning for me. So, for example, “blessed are the poor of spirit” not only refers to those who are humble but also obedient, etc.

Once I felt better equipped to see the variety of Christian virtues contained within the Beatitudes I started looking at the content of the stories and figuring out where best they fit. I was happy with the result, though I found it does make that last chapter a bit more weighty as the stories are reflective of “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”. At the same time, this Christian attribute is the highest form of sacrifice, the pinnacle of expressing our complete love for Christ so it’s also fitting to end with that in mind.

Returning a bit to your current home. What does the future of Orthodoxy in Newfoundland look like? Are there any aspects of life up there that make evangelism unique for you both?

I can honestly say I don’t know what the future of Orthodoxy in Newfoundland looks like. All we can do is plant the seed. Sometimes it feels like it will never bear fruit and other times I can see the tree budding and find myself holding my breath waiting for it to bloom. I have to constantly remind myself that God measures progress differently than I do. Progress isn’t necessarily in church attendance numbers or in owning a beautiful church building. True progress is the amount of confessions that take place, the amount of prayer ropes that not only get given out but used. Before moving here I went to visit a well-known elder and he told me, “If you can save just one soul it will be worth all your effort”. I try to remember that.

The thing we’ve found that makes evangelism a little more challenging here on the Rock is that Newfoundlanders (at least those in St. John’s) are hesitant to approach anyone who appears different, so they are not as open to Orthodoxy as people may be who live in a place very open to different cultures and religions. But we keep toiling and praying. It’s really important to my husband to offer daily services and it means a lot to both of us that the island of Newfoundland is commemorated in the services: “for this island… and the faithful that dwell therein…”. So people are benefited by the prayers of our mission whether or not they even know we exist.

newf2There is one Newfoundland story I’d like to share that occurred last summer. Fr. John and I went hiking near a frequently-visited ocean beach. On our way back we encountered a Russian family. The man, seeing Fr. John’s cassock and cross, asked if he were a priest in Newfoundland. It turned out this man had lived in St. John’s for over 20 years and had never heard of our mission. We spoke a bit and he asked where we held services. We went on our way, not really expecting to ever see him again as we had met many ethnic Orthodox who always asked where the church was but rarely showed up. To our surprise this man came to church the very next Sunday and has come every single Sunday since. We later found out he had been praying for God to lead him to an Orthodox church as all the years he lived in Newfoundland he had kept his faith, read copious amounts of Orthodox books and would attend Divine Liturgy whenever he visited Russia or places that had churches.

This is one example of many that keeps our hearts at peace with our decision to live and serve Christ in Newfoundland. All of these blessings encourage us to keep planting so God may reap.

Thanks so much for the benefit of your time in this interview. It has been a joy to discuss your latest book and evangelical efforts. May God bless your mission work and all your future writing endeavors!

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While preparing for a series of talks I will be delivering in Saskatchewan (God willing) I was searching for the passage in the Evergentinos about the monk committed to being patient in all things (see below) and came upon this blog post. It is a book review of The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory.

It is always interesting as an authour to learn what people think of your books, but it’s even more special to have them highlight specific passages or quotations that stood out to them. In this post the writer (whose blog I was unfamiliar with until today) offers excerpts from each Beatitude (chapter). I really enjoyed seeing what things resonated with her and hope you enjoy them too.

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I was so delighted when I found out that this book was being published! I had already read Presvytera Constantina’s book “The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery,” more than once. I was so spiritually encouraged and challenged by the content of that book that as soon as I found out she had written a second book, I could not wait to read it. And, as expected, “The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory” did not disappoint.

I took this new book along on a trip and despite its 280+ pages, I finished reading it before I was even halfway through my second day of travel. “The Sweetness of Grace” is an easy read. The application of the content, however, is far from easy. Presvytera Constantina’s learnings, which she so readily shares in each of her books left me laughing, crying, covered in goose bumps…

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Below is an excerpt from my new book The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, published by Ancient Faith Publishing. The story is called “Set a Watch Before My Mouth” from the seventh chapter, ‘Blessed Are the Peacemakers’, pp. 236-238. Purchase your copy of The Sweetness of Grace through Ancient Faith Store or Amazon.com.

sistersSR. SARAH AND SR. THEKLA, having become novices around the same time, had a special bond. Not only did they share books and stories, work together, and were even tonsured together they had a unique pact. From the very beginning of their monastic lives they agreed they would never, under any circumstances, indicate to each other that they had gotten into an argument, were upset with, or had been offended by, a member of their monastic community. This decision to safeguard the bond of peace within the sisterhood was a very wise one.

“See, if I had a problem with a certain sister, if for some reason I got upset with her and went and vented to Sr. Thekla, then she might also find herself becoming embittered or disliking the other sister. You know, the way a person sometimes dislikes those whom their friends dislike. We never wanted this to happen, so we agreed that we would never say anything bad about another sister, ever.”

This simple commitment brings with it immeasurable protection. Many times we allow ourselves to vent. We convince ourselves that it is better to get it all out than to allow our anger to boil up inside us, as the saying goes. Unfortunately, we are wrong on two counts for engaging in such behavior.

First, venting allows our thoughts and suspicions, our hurt feelings and offenses, to become solidified. We confirm our thoughts by justifying them, explaining why we are right and the other person is wrong, how we are wounded and the other is the cruel offender. Second, we pull the other person or persons listening to us into sin with us. We infiltrate their thoughts and perceptions, tainting the way they think and feel about the supposed offender. This is actually worse than the first wrongdoing, because we are not only sinning but creating a stumbling block for someone else.

It is an easy enough temptation to fall into, especially given that contemporary society encourages expressing our anger; it teaches us it’s a necessary evil to pour out the poison in order to avoid blowing up. But since when has the authentic Christian embraced what the world teaches? Here is what Elder Thaddeus teaches we ought to do to resolve our inner turmoil:

When the period of warfare comes, we are overwhelmed by thoughts… This is when we must turn to the Lord in our hearts and keep silent. If we cannot abandon the thought that is bothering us immediately then we must keep silence. We should not think about anything. It is not ours to think. The Lord knows what we can take and what we cannot. Then, when we are in silence and our minds are quiet, we should give it something to do so that it will not wander [and return to the matter that is bothering us]. We should pray.[1]

When we are confronted by strong emotions and thoughts, instead of venting to someone else, we can apply the elder’s advice. And then we go to confession. It is in confession that our venting can take place. Not that confession is an opportunity to accuse, slander, or even simply reveal the faults of others, but it is here in confession that we can reveal our honest feelings and perceptions. Most importantly, it is through confession that our erring thoughts are corrected and we receive consolation for our sorrow. A wise spiritual guide can help us discern where we are at fault in a conflict, or, if we are innocent, how we can bear the injustices done to us.

The sisters protected themselves and each other by committing to keep silent instead of venting. Silence doesn’t mean the heart is at peace, but it does ensure that sin does not progress into action through word or deed. By their silence the sisters “silence the enemy and the avenger” of mankind (Ps. 8:2).

 

[1] Elder Thaddeus, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, trans. Ana Smiljanic (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Press, 2014), p. 116.

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From the author of The Scent of Holiness, The Sweetness of Grace is a collection of stories derived from conversations with Orthodox nuns, monks, and laypeople, along with experiences of Orthodox life in South Korea, Greece, and North America. These stories of faith, courage, struggle, and everyday miracles will inspire and delight you.

 

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page_1Christos a inviat! (We only get to say Christ is risen for a few more days).

I am pleased to inform you that just yesterday I received an email from the Romanian translator of The Scent of Holiness stating she is about to start translating The Sweetness of Grace. It will be published by Editura Sophia (Sophia Press) just as the first one was. I will be sure to let you all know when the Romanian version is ready for purchase.

For those who haven’t had a chance to see the book trailer, check it out. The photos are all from our travels in South Korea, Greece and North America.

 

The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, published by Ancient Faith Publishing, is available both in paperback and e-book format. You can purchase copies from Ancient Faith Publishing or through Amazon.

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Christ is risen! (I love that we get to say this for 40 days)

Above you see a collection of my journals ranging from 2004 to 2016. I have been writing in a journal since about Grade 8 (as we Canadians say), so that would be since I was…  counting on my fingers… thirteen years old. That means that for twenty years – 2/3 of my life – I have been recording my thoughts, feelings and experiences in notebooks.

This is all that remains of my journals. While moving out of our apartment to get ready to move to South Korea I rashly threw out all my journals from before 2004. There weren’t that many of them, and looking back I don’t feel that bad about it. They were mostly filled with the morose, self-centered thoughts of a moody teenager. Who really wants to revisit those times?

Anyway, you’re probably thinking: That’s nice, Matushka, by what’s the point of this show-and-tell about your collection of journals?

Let me explain.

First of all, as you can see from all the tabs sticking out of my journals from my time living in South Korea and Greece, recording my experiences became the foundation for writing  both The Scent of Holiness and The Sweetness of Grace. (Though in actuality the tabs you see were for The Sweetness of Grace; I wrote The Scent of Holiness so quickly in comparison I didn’t really need to dig through journals to refresh my memory).

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I started writing The Sweetness of Grace in 2014, eight years after first moving to South Korea. I had an one month break from my social work degree that summer and I drove up to a park overlooking a lake and wrote on my laptop while sitting in my car. The weather had turned rainy that August so I would write for a while and, when the showers let up, would go for walks in the woods. It took me two years to write The Sweetness of Grace. Having written down my experiences in my journal when they first occurred allowed me to feel confident the stories were as accurate as I could describe. Of course, everything is told through the lens of personal perspective and experience, but even a historian can’t help insert themselves into the story in some form I suppose.

Moving on… the real reason I’m sharing all this with you is to commend you to your own journal-writing. When I look though my old journals, though I don’t do it very often, it really helps give me a truer picture of my life, my self, my sins and my passions. The difficult times in my life, the most intimately dark and difficult experiences, suddenly become the most influential. Where once I could only taste the bitterness of gall, now they are revealed as having been mixed with sweet honey. In the new light cast by the passage of time they no longer appear simply difficult but rather as opportunities for character-building. They are the reason I can read this passage from the Pslater and fully ascent to it:

In all our days, let us be glad for the days wherein Thou didst humble us, for the years wherein we saw evils Ps. 90:16.

lined up

Writing in journals gets out all the bile and selfishness that boils in our heart all too often, going unsaid and forgotten but never repented of or properly purged.When I prepare for confession I often go back to my journal. I keep a different book where I try and record my daily thoughts and sins (though I’m very negligent in this regard). Going back to the place where I write the narratives of my life can reveal things I didn’t realize were there. It’s only helpful to write down our inner thoughts and feelings if we actually use them as ammunition in our confessions to properly accuse ourselves.

Lastly, writing in journals – especially over time – helps us see how quickly life is passing us by. Not only from a time perspective, but from a personal one. Am I the same person I was in 2004? If the answer is yes, then there’s a problem. It’s not that we will be, or even should be, aware of our progression from spiritually immature to spiritually mature. However, I hope to God that I won’t react today the way I did years before if faced with a similar trial or temptation. We need to be ever striving, ever searching to draw closer to God and further away from our “old man” and the secular, if enticing, ways of the world. Conversely, it can work the other way. When I read my journal from 2009-2011 I read some of the best experiences of my life. (This was in the middle of our life in Greece). We were living in Thessaloniki, going to monasteries and studying theology. When I read it now I ask myself, “Have I digressed?” But again, this question holds more weight when one can read the inner workings of one’s heart from better years.

As for man his days are as the grass, as a flower of the field so shall he blossom forth Ps. 103: 15

Our life is passing us by without our noticing it. Like the way the ocean tide goes out so quickly and yet almost imperceptibly. The water seems so close to shore until all of a sudden you realize it’s far away.

Don’t let life slip away like the sea slips away from the shore. Writing in a journal not only helps improve your writing skills but really helps focus you and helps you realize where your priorities lie and where your treasure is (Luke 12:34). This is important because we don’t want our heart to be where our treasure is if our treasure isn’t Christ.

Give it a try it!

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I dated my journals when compiling material for my second book. I found it easier to find passages I was looking for.

(As a side note, I grew up in a place that has the highest tides in the whole world. In just six hours low tide goes to high tide and that’s the difference of 50 feet! So, ocean similes come naturally to me.)

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51k5othnmsl-_sy346_Below is a very gracious review of The Sweetness of Grace by Matushka Anna Crawford. I thank her for taking the time to write down her thoughts on my new book.

Original post can be found here.

“More than the sum of its parts,” was a phrase that came to mind when I finished The Sweetness of Grace: stories of Christian trial and victory by Matushka Constantina Palmer. However, that phrase doesn’t quite convey what I want it to. You see, it isn’t the sum of the parts that makes this book what it is, because each story carries within it  the whole: the grace of Orthodoxy as lived by faithful Orthodox Christians.

Mat. Constantina admits in the introduction that it is her skills as a storyteller, not her masters degree in theology, which bring these stories to life, but I must disagree slightly. Matushka is an exceptional storyteller, but she also has the intimate knowledge of the Holy Fathers and their writings which provides the lens through which the light of the stories shine. Much like my spiritual father who has a (to me) phenomenal and encyclopedic ability to pull out exactly the right anecdote from an elder’s life, a quotation from a saint, verse from holy scripture, or story from the Prologue, Matushka roots every story solidly in the Church’s Tradition. This in turn brings a deeper understanding of the scripture or precept.

All of this might make the book sound too exalted to read! Do not be deceived on this front; just like Matushka Constantina’s first book, The Scent of Holiness, this one is extremely approachable, easy to read, and enjoyable. I read the first third in one sitting because I couldn’t put it down. After all, it is a collection of stories. The Lord himself taught us in parables, or stories, as the best way to capture our attention and instruct us. There is nothing insignificant about the humble story.

I recommend this book very highly. You will likely read it as I did, in huge gulps, but then you will return again and again to savor individual stories. Both The Sweetness of Grace and The Scent of Holiness [review here] should be in every Orthodox Christian’s library. Thank you, Matushka, for your labors in collecting and sharing these stories with us.

The Sweetness of Grace: stories of Christian trial and victory is available from Ancient Faith Publishing. I received a free copy in return for my unbiased review.

 

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Bobby Maddox, host of Ancient Faith Radio’s Ex Libris, graciously took the time to interview me on my new book, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory.

You can listen to it here.

In the interview Bobby references the interview I did for The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery back in 2012. You can listen to that interview here.

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