Archive for the ‘The Sweetness of Grace’ Category

sweetnessBelow is yet another excerpt from The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory published by Ancient Faith PublishingIt is from Chapter 1, “Blessed are the Poor of Spirit”, pp. 29-31. 

To read more stories, you can purchase an e-book or paperback copy from the publisher here or on amazon here.


Contemplating the Virtue of the Theotokos

During the winter months, the sun had already set by the time I reached the Holy Dormition Monastery of the Mother of God. Vespers was most often held in the large catholicon outside the monastery gates.

Entering the outer narthex, I would light a beeswax candle in front of the festal icon the sisters had set out on the icon stand. As soon as I opened the large wooden door to the nave, I would be greeted by the sound of the nuns’ melodic chanting and surrounded by the sweet fragrance of burning incense. I would then proceed to the large icon of the Mother of God depicted with the Lord on her lap.

In those sacred if fleeting moments, I felt genuinely connected to the Mother of God. In the dim light of the church, I could even supplicate her with tears and be noticed by no one. As far away as she seemed out in the world at times, she seemed very near in the sacred space of her holy monastery.

To stand in the presence of a holy icon is to stand in the presence of the person depicted therein. Whether we stand before a large icon encased in an elaborately decorated wooden frame or before a paper icon taped on the refrigerator, we are in the presence of the holy person whose countenance is painted in line and color. But in the peaceful, prayerful atmosphere of a holy monastery, we are often more attuned to the spiritual reality surrounding us, which makes our prayer flow more readily and brings the contemplation of holy mysteries within our grasp.

It is in moments such as those that I contemplate the person of the Most Holy Theotokos. Thinking on her life and works, her sufferings and sacrifice, I feel she offers us the answer to all our problems. The example of her life is the cure for our illness, the source of joy to heal our sorrow. By means of merely two of her countless virtues—obedience and purity—she teaches us everything. In her obedience to God, she shows us that perfect freedom and the attainment of our full potential are found in submitting our fallen and corrupted will to the all-good Father. Thus we mold our will into His will and therefore become able eventually not only to know the good but to will it and do it.

With her outward and inward purity, the Theotokos points us to the easy path of sanctification. By keeping our souls and bodies pure, by not even accepting corrupted thoughts, we maintain the ability to hear and communicate with God and thus learn how to live in conformity to His will. If we have long ago lost our mental, spiritual, and/or physical purity, we have the opportunity to restore them through confession and repentance. These are our constant means of imitating her virtue and, as she does most of all, pleasing her Son and our God.

And so, no matter how ill we are, no matter our upbringing, no matter the genetic weaknesses of body and soul we have inherited, no matter the state of the world around us, we have the opportunity, by God’s grace and through the prayers of the Theotokos, to become healthy. We too can, in our own dormition, pass from life to life through a mere falling asleep, if only we will imitate her virtue.


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sweetnessI thought I’d keep with the pattern I’ve set for Sundays in Great Lent and share yet another story from The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory.  The story posted on the Sunday of  St. Gregory Palamas was about a vigil in Thessaloniki on the feast of St. Gregory and the story posted on the Sunday of the Cross was composed of vignettes about the True Cross of Christ . Although this story is not explicitly on St. John Climacus, it references him so I thought I’d share it. It is from Chapter 7, “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God”. 

To read more stories, you can purchase an e-book or paperback copy from the publisher here or on amazon here.


He Who Comes in the Name of Lord

Acquiring a spiritual father requires prayer and discernment, a humble disposition, and an openness to the will of God, because a spiritual father “becomes the means of leading the life of men out of hell (by the negative effect of their passions), and into pure Christian life and spiritual freedom”.[i] Thus, it is a precious treasure when one’s spiritual father not only preaches Christ, but lives like Christ, as Monk Isaiah wrote to Nun Theodora: “The Holy Spirit is for everyone; but in those who are pure of the passions, who are chaste and live in stillness and silence, He reveals special powers”.[ii]

The greatest spiritual guides are those whose manner of life teaches as much or more than their words and advice. If a spiritual guide does not live the commandments of Christ, if he has not experienced temptation, if he does not actively struggle to overcome his passions, then how will he teach others to do likewise? On this point Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex says, “If the word that the spiritual father says is not seasoned with grace, nor proceeds from a heart that is warmed by the love of Christ, it becomes like the work of psychologists or counselors—a ‘half-blind’ worldly activity. The word of the spiritual father must bear the seal of grace, the seasoning of grace”.[iii]

I was once visiting a women’s monastery when it was announced that the spiritual father of sisterhood would be arriving shortly. We all went to the courtyard to await his arrival. The nuns were abuzz with excitement, running from here to there in anticipation, getting ready to greet their beloved father and teacher.

Once he was close to the monastery, the church bells began to peal a joyous greeting for the sisterhood’s spiritual elder with the honor and respect due to a person of great importance. The sisters opened wide the gates and allowed the car to drive right into the monastery (their elder was old and sickly and couldn’t walk very far).

They had set out a chair for him in the shade of the garden beside the small chapel. He was led to his seat and offered some water while we all—nuns and visitors—gathered around him. Once the sisterhood had all taken his blessing (which took some time on account of the large number of nuns), we, the visitors, approached to receive his blessing. He smiled sweetly at us and passed on good wishes. He briefly addressed all present, but it was difficult for us to hear him on account of the crowd. His humble disposition and kind demeanor made an impact on me, but the sisters’ joy and overwhelming love at having their spiritual father among them was more impressive still, contagious even.

The sisters’ excitement and love for their holy elder was a beautiful testament to the great importance of spiritual fatherhood. For it is the spiritual father who gives “spiritual rebirth, who introduce[s us] to the life in Christ, and who guides [us] on the path of salvation. Our rebirth in Christ . . . makes us members in the community of our church and offers us the ability to live a life in Christ”.[iv]

Truly, what a great thing it is to follow our spiritual father on the path to salvation. “Let’s not search for foretellers or foreseers,” St. John Climacus advises us, “but above all for those who have humble mindedness in all things, and those who can deal with our spiritual illnesses” (Ladder 4, p. 88, 725D).

[i] Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, (Mount Thabor Publishing: South Canaan, 2006), p. 174.

[ii] The Matericon: Instructions of Abba Isaiah to the Honourable Nun Theodora (St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery: Safford, 2001), p. 160.

[iii] Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, (Mount Thabor Publishing: South Canaan, 2006), p. 174.

[iv] Symeon Koutsas, The Spiritual Father According to Orthodox Tradition, trans. Constantine Zalalas, (St. Nicodemus Press: Bethlehem, 1995).


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sweetnessJust as I did last Sunday, I wish to share an excerpt from my second book, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory published by Ancient Faith Publishing  in honour of the Cross which is commemorated today, the third Sunday of Great Lent.  The story is from Chapter 8, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”, pp. 264-269.

To read more stories, you can purchase an e-book or paperback copy from the publisher here or on amazon here.

Sunday of the Cross 2

Sunday of the Cross, Holy Lady of Vladimir Mission, St. John’s, NL

 The Power of Your Cross, O Lord

“We should always make the sign of the cross, before we do something, before we speak,” Sr. Silouani instructed us. “While caught up in a conversation, even if we can’t make the sign of the cross over our mouth externally, we can do it internally, noetically, so as to be protected, to say what is necessary with the right words in an appropriate manner.”

The symbol of the cross holds great importance for Orthodox Christians; we make the sign of the cross countless times a day. In a monastery, the respect and honor attributed to the cross is even more obvious. You cannot but notice the frequency with which monastics employ the cross, the great ensign “dread and most awesome in war” (Kontakion for Ss. Constantine and Helen).

Before beginning any task—even simple tasks like washing the dishes—a nun crosses herself; when cooking food in the oven, a nun makes the sign of the cross over it; when baking bread, a nun will cut a small cross in the top of each loaf. Monastics sew small, unobtrusive red crosses on their clothes (usually on the underside), as well as on blankets and pillowcases.

When they compliment or congratulate someone, they often cross the person as well. When they yawn or laugh very hard, the sisters mark their lips with the sign of the cross. They make the sign of the cross when they yawn to ward off sleep potentially induced by the evil one, while they cross their mouths when they laugh because they struggle to practice temperance even in regard to laughter. Before eating or drinking, they cross themselves as well as their food and drink.

Conversely, they do not sit with their legs crossed (over the thigh) out of respect for the symbol of the cross, nor would they put a cross pattern in a floor, because people would walk on it. In fact, it is said that Athonite monks used to check the soles of their shoes—and those of pilgrims—to make sure they were not walking on symbols of the cross. If they found cross patterns on their soles, they would cut those pieces out.

I once read in the Gerontikon that a monk was walking through the woods and saw two twigs on the ground in the form of a cross. He bent down and uncrossed them so that no one would trample on the sign of the cross. Such is a monastic’s watchfulness and care for sacred symbols.

In all these ways and more, monastics try to keep the memory of the cross before them at all times, and not only the memory but the power of the cross. They look to the sign of the cross to help, enlighten, and protect them. As is said in an Orthodox hymn, “The power of Your cross, O Lord, is very great!”

We too should try to incorporate the sign of the cross into our daily lives as much as possible. To help inspire us to employ the sign of the cross and contemplate its great power, I will share the following stories.

When our friends were getting married, their koumvaroi[1] wanted to give them a special present. They had been given a small relic, a piece of the True Cross—the very wood on which Christ was crucified. They wanted to share this relic with our friends in honor of their wedding. The only problem was they didn’t know how to break a piece off. By the grace of God, such an action was unnecessary, for when they opened the reliquary they saw that the relic of the Cross had already divided into two pieces on its own, without anyone having touched it.


Another dear friend of ours—more like a lay spiritual mother than a friend—had made a pilgrimage to a monastery for the Feast of the Theophany. During the service for the Great Blessing of the Waters, when the priestmonk placed the cross in the water, she saw the water bubble as though it were rapidly boiling each of the three times the priest immersed the cross to sanctify the water. She was astonished and looked around to see if anyone else was as surprised as she was to witness the physical manifestation of the spiritual reality. No one else seemed to observe this miracle, and so our friend waited to speak with the priestmonk after the conclusion of the service.

She told him what she had seen when he placed the cross in the water, and he told her, “That was a gift from God to prepare you for a great temptation.” Needless to say, she witnessed with her own eyes the power of the cross.


While we were on a pilgrimage to the city of Xanthi in Greece, our priest told us about a holy patriarch, Joachim of Alexandria. At that time there was a king in Egypt of the region of Misiri. Despite his impiety, the king heard about the virtuous and venerable patriarch and began to admire the holy man. The king’s servant, however, did not share his master’s enthusiasm, and in order to demonstrate to the king that the patriarch was not as great as he seemed, he encouraged the king to invite the patriarch to visit.

When the patriarch arrived, the cunning servant proposed a debate, thinking he would defeat the patriarch. However, with ease the patriarch refuted all the servant’s empty and false comments about the Christian Faith. Recognizing his defeat, the servant came up with what he thought was a cunning plan to humiliate the patriarch and demonstrate that he wasn’t as holy as the King took him to be.

Knowing something of the Gospel, the servant challenged the patriarch to demonstrate the Christian ability to move a mountain with faith, promising to believe in the Christian God if the patriarch was successful. The patriarch requested a number of days to pray, and when he returned, he made the sign of the cross over himself three times, bowed, and invoked the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the mountain split into three parts and began moving toward them.

The King cried out in fear that they would be crushed and implored the patriarch to make the mountain stand still. (To this day the mountain is called Dur Dag, which means, “Stay still, mountain!”)

Despite this miracle of faith, the wicked servant still refused to believe and instead proposed another test. He had also heard that the Gospel says that whoever has faith will not die even if he drinks poison. So once again he told the patriarch if he accomplished this feat, the servant would believe. But the servant, knowing something of the power of the cross, told the patriarch he could not cross himself.

When the cup of poison was placed before the patriarch, the holy man asked, “But from which place should I drink? From here, here, here, or here?” touching the four sides of the cup in turn. By asking this the patriarch cunningly made the sign of the cross over the cup of poison.

“Anywhere you wish,” came the answer, and the patriarch drank down the poison and remained unharmed. The servant, thinking the poison must not have been strong enough to kill the patriarch, rinsed out the cup and drank from it. He, however, was not protected from the poison and fell down dead.


The grandfather of a friend served as a soldier in the Greek army during the first half of the nineteenth century. He had a small piece of the True Cross sewn into his uniform for divine protection, and it worked a great miracle. The enemy opened fire on him, but he was preserved unharmed. To his astonishment, however, when he removed his uniform, he saw it was riddled with bullet holes. Such is the power of the Cross!


A young girl I know also had firsthand experience of the power of the True Cross. She had gone to visit a priest from Crete who had in his possession a piece of the Cross. Countless people visit him in order to be blessed with the Cross, and many receive healing. Doctors had found a tumor in the bone of this young girl’s leg, and when she was blessed by the Cross it stuck—of its own accord—to the very place where the tumor was in her leg.

Many people had similar experiences to this: the Cross would stick to the very place they had a health problem, sometimes healing the person on the spot; sometimes they would come back for multiple blessings. It’s a wonderful reminder that even two thousand years after the death of our Savior, the wood of the Cross on which He suffered death for our sakes still works miracles.

Before Your Cross we bow down in worship, O Master, and Your holy Resurrection we glorify!

[1] Koumvaros/a/oi: the Greek title for a sponsor, someone who is in good standing with the Orthodox Church, and who supports the spiritual life of the married couple he/she is sponsoring.

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StMaximtheGreekChapel (1)

St. Maximos the Greek Russian Orthodox Chapel, Seoul, South Korea

I was recently contacted by an American reader of my books who wrote to tell me of a lovely coincidence. While reading my second book she was surprised to read the story of the epitaphios icon found the rubble of the destroyed Orthodox church in South Korea as she is personally acquainted with the persons who were responsible for returning it to its rightful owners. I talk about this event in The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory as we use to attend services in the Russian Orthodox chapel of St. Maximos the Greek in Seoul where the icon currently resides. (We lived there from July 2006 to August 2007).


The Seattle Times wrote an article about this significant event which took place during Holy Week in April, 1997:

Saturday, April 26, 1997

Missing Icon Home At Last — Seattle Man Helps Church Find Relic

By Sally Macdonald

Seattle Times Religion Reporter

Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Kudla knew exactly what to look for as he patrolled the ruins of a Russian Orthodox church in Seoul: a sacred, embroidered icon showing a crucified Christ.

It was during the Korean War and he was sure if the tapestry wasn’t already

destroyed, it eventually would be. Kudla found his way to a spot behind the altar and there, in a wooden cabinet, was the church’s plashtschanitsa [epitaphios], a precious representation of Christ used only on Good Friday.

Kudla, a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church, rescued the icon and now, four decades later, thanks to help from a Seattle man, it has been returned to its grateful owners.

Clifford Argue, a vice president of Alaska Airlines in Seattle, helped the church find the missing relic recently and escorted it back to Seoul in time for Good Friday services yesterday. Orthodox Christians calculate the date of Easter differently from other denominations, and tomorrow they will celebrate Easter.

Icons like the one found in the ruins of Seoul’s St. Nicholas Cathedral have been used for 1,500 years to drape the shoulders of Russian Orthodox priests during Good Friday services.

By 1951, when Kudla found the relic, Seoul had changed hands four times in less than two years, falling to the North Korean and Chinese Communist armies and being recaptured each time by United Nations forces. The city was subjected to heavy shelling and bombing in each invasion.

Kudla feared for the safety of the icon because the interior of the church already had been vandalized and burned during the war, likely by North Korean soldiers. Red paint was splashed around the building, and the pews were broken apart. He was sure that the Communists would destroy the icon if they found it.

Kudla mailed the purple and gold tapestry to his suburban Pittsburgh church for safekeeping. There it was used for several years and then stored away.

The cathedral was rebuilt after the war, but the tapestry was never completely forgotten.

Argue, who was stationed near Seoul in 1968 as an Air Force civil engineer and attended the cathedral, helped relocate the relic after seeing a posting on the Internet by an Orthodox discussion group that said the congregation was looking for its missing icon.

Word gets out

Argue, a member of the board of directors of the U.S. Orthodox Christian Mission and active member of Seattle’s St. Demetrios Church, spread the word to other church groups and related organizations by computer.

The posting was seen by the Rev. Stephen Kachur. Now retired and living in Arizona, Kachur had been a pastor at Kudla’s church in Rankin, Pa., and remembered the relic well.

Kudla, now a 69-year-old retired foreman at a tool factory, recently traveled from his home in Detroit to Rankin, to watch members of his old church pack up the relic to return it.

He told church members it had bothered him for 46 years that he had taken something from a church and that the icon might be missed by its owners.

The relic is about 4 feet long by 2 feet wide and weighs about 15 pounds. Such artifacts are used only during Good Friday services, after which they are placed in flower-covered boxes representing Christ’s tomb. Then they are placed on the altar for 42 days, when the Ascension, the day Christians believe Jesus rose into heaven, is celebrated.

The St. Nicholas tapestry was woven in 1874 at a monastery in St. Petersburg,

Russia, then taken to Seoul at the turn of the century by missionaries there to try to convert their Korean neighbors.

Argue went to Pennsylvania to pick up the relic and then on to Korea to take it home. There he joined members of the cathedral, who celebrated its return with a prayer service led by Greek Orthodox Bishop Sotirios Trambas.

“It’s like we read about so many times,” Argue said after returning to Seattle earlier this week. “Artworks that get misplaced in wartime are slowly being returned to their rightful owners. They’re not just art, but precious pieces for the church. It reminded the people of that time when the church was almost destroyed and they were scattered.

“I wanted to return it personally because they were good to me during the war and this was a way to give some of their history back.”

*Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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While the quality of photos in this post are great, at least they give you the idea of what the icon and chapel look like.

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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?
newf 1
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! :)]


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.

Orthodox Christian Parenting

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.


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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