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Entering The Convent, The Orthodox Way


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I was thinking about how to start this topic, and kept running into things that would need to be explained to a (mostly) Roman Catholic audience. And I thought that there was no way to cover all the d

Reason #193 why Mother is the best Abbess EVER: [i]Dear Marigold,[/i] [i]I feel as if there is a ghost in chapel these days -- I go in and it seems someone should be there only I don't see them

I can't find the words to thank you all individually, so THANK YOU and know that I'm praying for all of us here. Feeling a bit more human today. I slept for about 13hrs, woke up to an unexpected le

Thanks for sharing, Marigold

It seems you are following the attractions placed in your heart by God. It all sound only good to me.

You mentioned choosing this monastery and sticking to this choice even when it gets difficult with the family and the visa business. There's also the sticking to it once you're in, when it is SURE to get difficult in a very special way, custom-fitted for you. Despite the marked differences between eastern and western Christian monastic life, we are all "renunciants," choosing God over all else so eventually we will (we should) come to a point where the choice for God over ourselves is a hard one.

I remember reading years ago in [u]Crossing the Threshold of Hope[/u] by JPII a passing reference to a significant difference between the eastern and western life of faith which struck me. He said someting like: in the west there is an [i]emphasis[/i] (meaning, the other mysteries of the life of Christ are not excluded but only less in focus) on the passion and suffering of Christ and, in the east, on His transfiguration and resurrection. It is a simple statement and perhaps simplistic but it is very illuminating (among other things, it clarified for me why I had been so attracted to Orthodox praxis and spirituality which I lived for many years as part of a small Byzantine Rite parish, Orthodox in every way except that they were in communion with the Bishop of Rome).

It seems to me this difference noted by JPII shows true in the realm of monastic life as well. Your attraction to the life and the life itself seem to have a very organic, wholesome, human, "incarnational" quality, the fruit of "divinisation" in and of our life here on earth. Whereas as in the west there is much more abstraction, a sense (as you noted) of "calling" and of a sacrificial offering of self. I will confess here that the type of monastic life that holdest by far the greatest attraction for me is that of the hesychast in his little hut on the rocky cliffs of Mount Athos. He has passed through major ascesis and come to theoria but he sees his warfare as part of a cosmic struggle in Christ. Rather than seeing himself as crucified on the cross with Christ his attention caught by the Holy Spirit whose visits divinise him and take him into the life of the Trinity.

One way is not right and the other wrong but they [i]are[/i] very different expressions of the monastic charism. At the heart of it all, for the monk or nun (or, "nunk", as my Benedictine NM used to say), is the east or west is spiritual warfare which means doing battle with self, the world and the devil. This warfare is, I think, central in the work the monk does for the world. If he does this work he makes himself available to the Holy Spirit in purity of heart and the Spirit can descend, bringing grace not just to him but to the whole world.

Now I'll post and surely wish to edit this post but must away (AGAIN) to the dentist.

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[quote name='organwerke' timestamp='1319460178' post='2326194']
Wow, it is really a beautiful letter!
One of the best I've read about vocation, my compliments to you and good luck in your beautiful journey!
[/quote]

Thank you!

[quote name='Lisa' timestamp='1319460263' post='2326195']
Wow, Marigold! The Lord is definitely going to change the world through you.

My first question (I'm sure I'll have many): Are there any specific prayers? For instance, do the Orthodox pray the Divine Office?
[/quote]

You'd better believe it! The Hours are differently 'shaped' than the RC Office, but the content is basically the same: psalms, hymns, saints and feasts of the day, readings from Scripture. So, Vespers, Matins, 1st, 3rd, 6th, 9th Hour, Compline - with the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feasts.

[b]Aya[/b], you're right I think, but your post has given me a lot to think about so I will reply later! Good luck at the dentist!

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I have been stunned into silence with the fierce beauty of your letter, marigold...I want to comment on everything & yet I find myself unable to say nothing...Only in my heart is it "Yes! And yes! And yes!" Thank you, chica.

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[quote name='brandelynmarie' timestamp='1319478290' post='2326304']
I have been stunned into silence with the fierce beauty of your letter, marigold...I want to comment on everything & yet I find myself unable to say nothing...Only in my heart is it "Yes! And yes! And yes!" Thank you, chica.
[/quote]

Hee hee! You're welcome! Would love to hear your comments once you've thought about it for a while :)

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Marigold, couple ques (no purpose to them - just interested to know)

- In the west there is a clearly defined progression in the life codified in the law of the Church (thanks to Roman capacity for organization and codification inherited from, um...the Romans!) - postulancy, novitiate, vows (simple then solemn for nuns, perpetual/renewable for religious sisters), each happening within a defined time period. Are there such stages in Orthodox monastic life for nuns (apart from the "schema" and "megaloschema") and how is it determined when a nun "moves on" to the next stage? (Fascinating read at [url="http://www.3saints.com/schema.html"]http://www.3saints.com/schema.html[/url] all about Orthodox mon life but doesn't address this point.)

- If not too personal a ques, what is the ethnic makeup and spiritual heritage of the Sisters? You are British and do you have Slavic or Greek ancestry? Are there Sisters born and raised in the US who don't have an ethnic kinship with Orthodoxy (like me, practicing in the Byzantine rite)? And/or are there Sisters born into Orthodoxy?

Lastly, I'm glad others here have pointed out the integrity of your letter to your aunt - it does seem to show that you are truly following your heart - this will lead you and take you far in your journey to God.

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Thank you so much for sharing this! Often I face fears about how my family might react to me discerning religious life and I found your letter encouraging... btw I think that nuns could definitely change the world! I think it was Archbishop Fulton Sheen who once said, that nuclear war is prevented more by cloistered nuns praying to the Prince of Peace than by politicians discussing world peace :)

Please tell us more about what Orthodox convents are like! I actually saw (the outside of) one with my mom when I went to Russia... of course I didn't see the inside where the nuns are... it was really beautiful! though since I wasn't there to discern, it was more like a "tourism" type of visit..so I don't know very much at all about it. I didn't see many nuns walking around, though I did see some priests :) they were very joyful! I also remember watching a tv program on St Elizabeth (the Duchess and New Martyr), her life is incredible.

God bless!

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[quote name='Aya Sophia' timestamp='1319458782' post='2326192']
Thanks for sharing, Marigold

It seems you are following the attractions placed in your heart by God. It all sound only good to me.

You mentioned choosing this monastery and sticking to this choice even when it gets difficult with the family and the visa business. There's also the sticking to it once you're in, when it is SURE to get difficult in a very special way, custom-fitted for you. Despite the marked differences between eastern and western Christian monastic life, we are all "renunciants," choosing God over all else so eventually we will (we should) come to a point where the choice for God over ourselves is a hard one.

I remember reading years ago in [u]Crossing the Threshold of Hope[/u] by JPII a passing reference to a significant difference between the eastern and western life of faith which struck me. He said someting like: in the west there is an [i]emphasis[/i] (meaning, the other mysteries of the life of Christ are not excluded but only less in focus) on the passion and suffering of Christ and, in the east, on His transfiguration and resurrection. It is a simple statement and perhaps simplistic but it is very illuminating (among other things, it clarified for me why I had been so attracted to Orthodox praxis and spirituality which I lived for many years as part of a small Byzantine Rite parish, Orthodox in every way except that they were in communion with the Bishop of Rome).

It seems to me this difference noted by JPII shows true in the realm of monastic life as well. Your attraction to the life and the life itself seem to have a very organic, wholesome, human, "incarnational" quality, the fruit of "divinisation" in and of our life here on earth. Whereas as in the west there is much more abstraction, a sense (as you noted) of "calling" and of a sacrificial offering of self. I will confess here that the type of monastic life that holdest by far the greatest attraction for me is that of the hesychast in his little hut on the rocky cliffs of Mount Athos. He has passed through major ascesis and come to theoria but he sees his warfare as part of a cosmic struggle in Christ. Rather than seeing himself as crucified on the cross with Christ his attention caught by the Holy Spirit whose visits divinise him and take him into the life of the Trinity.

One way is not right and the other wrong but they [i]are[/i] very different expressions of the monastic charism. At the heart of it all, for the monk or nun (or, "nunk", as my Benedictine NM used to say), is the east or west is spiritual warfare which means doing battle with self, the world and the devil. This warfare is, I think, central in the work the monk does for the world. If he does this work he makes himself available to the Holy Spirit in purity of heart and the Spirit can descend, bringing grace not just to him but to the whole world.

Now I'll post and surely wish to edit this post but must away (AGAIN) to the dentist.
[/quote]

Yes. And I think this goes to the heart of the differences between us. Orthodox monastic life certainly does hold the sacrifical aspect in high esteem; take a look at the tonsure service itself: [i]"... from this present day you have been crucified and put to death to the world through the most perfect renunciation. For you have renounced parents, brothers, wife, children, forefathers, relatives, associations, friends, habits, the tumults in the world, cares, possessions, goods, empty and vain pleasure and glory; and you are renouncing not only those things ... but even yet your own life ... prepare yourself not towards ease, not towards freedom from care, not towards sensual pleasures ... but towards spiritual struggles, towards temperance of the flesh, towards purification of the soul, towards mean poverty, towards the good grief ... For you have to hunger and to thirst and to go naked and to be reviled and ridiculed, to be reproached and persecuted, and to be tempted in many sorrowful things, in which things the life according to God is characterised."[/i]

Clearly it is a sacrifice. But it is rare to hear Orthodox speak of 'callings' in the way Roman Catholics do, because we see it as a free offering of the self back to God. I agree with you that it is human and incarnational - fundamentally because we know that heaven is right here, right now, if only we have the eyes to see it. And I too love the life of the Athonite hesychasts, what would I not give for such a little hut? Fortunately for me the monastery appoints you a desert day each month and I plan to take full advantage of the log cabin up in the forest :)

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[quote name='Aya Sophia' timestamp='1319487655' post='2326390']
Marigold, couple ques (no purpose to them - just interested to know)

- In the west there is a clearly defined progression in the life codified in the law of the Church (thanks to Roman capacity for organization and codification inherited from, um...the Romans!) - postulancy, novitiate, vows (simple then solemn for nuns, perpetual/renewable for religious sisters), each happening within a defined time period. Are there such stages in Orthodox monastic life for nuns (apart from the "schema" and "megaloschema") and how is it determined when a nun "moves on" to the next stage? (Fascinating read at [url="http://www.3saints.com/schema.html"]http://www.3saints.com/schema.html[/url] all about Orthodox mon life but doesn't address this point.)

- If not too personal a ques, what is the ethnic makeup and spiritual heritage of the Sisters? You are British and do you have Slavic or Greek ancestry? Are there Sisters born and raised in the US who don't have an ethnic kinship with Orthodoxy (like me, practicing in the Byzantine rite)? And/or are there Sisters born into Orthodoxy?

Lastly, I'm glad others here have pointed out the integrity of your letter to your aunt - it does seem to show that you are truly following your heart - this will lead you and take you far in your journey to God.
[/quote]

- Well, at my monastery you are a postulant for at least a year, with civil clothes and name. Then you are given the basic habit [white under-tunic, black tunic, belt, black veil] and become Sister Saint's Name. It's not a big deal at all. A novice told me how it happened for her: she had to visit her ailing mother and when she came home, Mother Abbess informed her there were some new clothes on her bed. That was it. I can hear the wedding dress crew screaming! :P

There is only the one habit, the Great and Angelic Habit or Schema, and only those who have come near to perfection in monastic life wear all parts of it - the other ranks are incomplete. At each stage, you receive another part of the habit. So after at least three years as a novice, you are tonsured as a rassophore. This is Greek for 'robe-bearer', since you receive the rasson ("choir robe") which you wear in church. You also get a cap and veil (see photo in first post). You make no formal vows but commit to perseverance in the life.

Then, after several more years, when the abbess considers you ready, you are tonsured as a stavrophore. This is Greek for 'cross-bearer', because you receive a thing which is a wooden cross that goes over your heart, and a cloth embroidered with the instruments of the Passion that goes on your back, held together with cords. It's the yoke of Christ. At this point you make vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. You become Mother New Name, receive a fuller rasson, a mantle, a hand-cross, and a candle which is burned at your funeral. This is the rank which most monastics eventually reach. The Great Schema is very rarely given.

At each stage your hair is cut, signifying your consecration to the Lord. There are no temporary vows - that's why it takes such a long time to get to making any! The abbess decides, with the advice of other senior nuns, when you are received into the next rank. Notice that I wrote 'at least' a year of postulancy; 'at least' three years of novitiate. Everybody is different, and there is a certain attitude towards the life which means that, while postulants and novices are not given a lot of 'special attention', your commitment is taken seriously whatever your rank. Don't quote me on it but I believe that even postulants get a monastic funeral.

- The Mothers and Sisters are American. But depending on how far back you go, all Americans come from somewhere else! Further than that, I don't know, and it hasn't been my business to ask. I myself am Swedish but grew up in the UK. And nobody is 'born into Orthodoxy' - we are all born pagans :) It just depends whether we come into the Church as infants or adults.

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[quote name='MarysLittleFlower' timestamp='1319510510' post='2326683']
Thank you so much for sharing this! Often I face fears about how my family might react to me discerning religious life and I found your letter encouraging... btw I think that nuns could definitely change the world! I think it was Archbishop Fulton Sheen who once said, that nuclear war is prevented more by cloistered nuns praying to the Prince of Peace than by politicians discussing world peace :)

Please tell us more about what Orthodox convents are like! I actually saw (the outside of) one with my mom when I went to Russia... of course I didn't see the inside where the nuns are... it was really beautiful! though since I wasn't there to discern, it was more like a "tourism" type of visit..so I don't know very much at all about it. I didn't see many nuns walking around, though I did see some priests :) they were very joyful! I also remember watching a tv program on St Elizabeth (the Duchess and New Martyr), her life is incredible.

God bless!
[/quote]

I'm glad you were encouraged by my letter! Telling family and friends was really difficult, so I sympathise. If there's anything I can do, let me know.

Orthodox monasteries are most often either a central church with one building around it in a cloister shape, [i]or[/i] a group of buildings inside a large walled area, again with the church in the middle. But my nuns didn't have the money to build a whole new monastery so they just renovated an old farmhouse! :) Upstairs is reserved for the nuns, and downstairs has the chapel, refectory, office and library, and usually guests are allowed in the first two. There is no formal cloister (I had to laugh when I read in [i]In This House of Brede[/i] that only a doctor, worker, or reigning royal could come inside the cloister!) and certainly no grilles, but there are clear boundaries and the sisters' internal sense of separation seems to be very strong. You might pray with a guest and eat with him, but at the end of the day you go somewhere he cannot go and he goes back to the guesthouse.

I hope that's what you meant by what Orthodox convents are like, anyway! Every monastery is different, so this is just mine. Generally in all monasteries there is a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere, full of prayer :)

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Text of the tonsure service is very beautiful and true to the origins of Christian monasticism, with the desert fathers. The Sisters at Kirk Edge take the desert fathers as inspiration, although we don't have a "desert day" as such - envious of your being able to slip away into the woods alone for a nice long stretch like that - my kind of heaven!

It seems in Orthodox monastic life there is much more fluidity and elasticity in the matter of progressive stages in the life. This might be a little unnerving for someone with a western formation who is accustomed to having a timeframe as a point of reference or compass point in the life. (Of course, the way to live the monastic life anywhere, whether in the east or the west, is in the present moment, heart to heart with the Lord, thinking not at all of where one might "be" in the process six months or a year or ten years from now.)

By "born into Orthodoxy" I meant "into an Orthodox family" (as I was born in a Roman Catholic family), as distinguished from converting to Orthodoxy but you are right, of course - none of us is actually "born" a Christian of any kind. You did answer my ques about the Sisters. So, your cultural gap will be between Swedish/British and American, the world and the monastery, and there probably won't be additional elements of Bulgarian or Russian or Serbian culture (or whatever the predominant country of origin, had the Sisters been from elsewhere) thrown in to the mix.

What about the semantron? Do the Sisters use this?

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No, bells :)

The possibility just occurred to me that the difference in attitudes towards progression might be: for Roman Catholics the postulancy - novititate - temporary vows etc. is a time of testing, to see whether in fact you can live the life, and when it's been established that you can, you get on and work out your salvation from there, in your settled permanent state as a monastic. And for Orthodox the ranks are meant to correspond to, and reflect, the gradual working out of salvation. So, only after a decade or more will you have the 'no going back' permanent state. Do you think that holds any water?

Being a fan of the DFs, I'm glad your monastery takes them as inspiration too. My Mother Abbess told me that when they were getting established they had to think seriously and decided that the DFs were much closer to what they were doing than many of the other (very honourable) forms of life that were possible in countries where the Orthoodx faith had flourished for centuries. The lavra, for example, isn't even conceivable in the States for at least another couple of hundred years.

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