Teva: First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time for this interview and sharing your thoughts with the readers of the St. Nina Quarterly. You grew up in the Church and for a time worked as a social worker prior to entering the monastery. How did you choose the monastic life?
Mother Christophora: I think the monastic life chose me. God makes a calling. To enter a monastery in the country we live in, the society we live in, the culture we live in, to leave everything behind and come and live like this - one has to be a little bit "crazy." That is why I think that God has a lot more to do with it than we do. Women have so many opportunities these days in our country. In this time we can do almost anything that we want. With that being true and still choosing the monastic life, it's something a bit different than what we have seen in the history of the Church before now. Let me explain what I mean by that. In some of the European countries or some of the generations before this, women, at a very young age - sixteen or seventeen - would have to decide either, "Yes, I am going to get married" - probably to the boy next door or from the same village - or, "I don't want to be married. I want to be a monastic." It would have been pretty much that simple. Now, it is one choice out of one hundred to two hundred that we can have. All of the sisters here have come from very different backgrounds. I did grow up in the Church and I was always close to the Church. That makes me unique in this sisterhood. Many sisters - most - have come from non-Orthodox backgrounds. So it is still a mystery why I am here or why another sister is here and not anyone else from her peers, her family, or her parish. That is why I think that it is God that does a lot of the choosing and we have to answer the call. He calls us but we have to answer it. For me, it was a natural progression from being in the Church, being raised in the Church, and liking the Church all my life. I never left it, although many people leave and hopefully come back. I did not have that experience. I just wanted more of it. Even though I was working professionally, I would have liked to work full time in the Church, but there wasn√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t opportunity to do that as a woman. Then I discovered that the monastic life really answered my desires. I was able to fulfill my yearnings and serve God in this way.
T.: Are there any similarities between your work as a social worker and the work that you do in the monastery?
M.C.: Many of the things that I learned and did in my profession - certainly, God has asked me to use them here. That is true of other sisters, also. When we become a monastic, our parents, family, friends may think that the education that they gave us is going to be wasted. But I would say quite the contrary. It is like the parable of the talents in the Gospel. If God gives us some talents and asks us to serve Him, the talents are going to be multiplied in a monastery. I find myself drawing back on the things that I learned in the world and actually use them. I was in the field of alcoholism and addictions, and many people that come to the monastery to talk to me have some of this struggle in their lives, in their families. I know a little bit about it. At least I can direct them to help.
T.: If someone has never visited a monastery, they might wonder what your daily life is like. Would you describe a typical day?
M.C.: It is probably quite like most people's day in the home, except that it is punctuated by prayer - both formal and private. In our monastery, we start in the morning with a service at 6:30 a.m. We have matins and hours, and three days a week we also have a Divine Liturgy. So each nun rises before 6:30, depending on her prayer rule and her needs. Some wake up just a short time before 6:30 because they need more rest. Others wake up earlier and do prayers in their room for a longer period of time. We all come to church together. After the service we have some breakfast and then go on to do what we call our obediences, which are things that we are assigned to. The monastery is a family but also an institution, so there has to be some organization to get everything done. We have a rather large facility with a hundred acres. The building where our nuns live and where our church and our dining room are, is the size of a football field, so it is a lot of work to care for that. In addition we have three guesthouses, flower gardens to tend and grass to mow. Each sister is assigned to be responsible for different areas of our home and for taking care of the guests. Some sisters clean the guesthouses, some answer the phone and the door. Others are cooking. Others are cleaning. Some work in the office or take care of the library. So each sister goes about her work. Because we are a small community of ten sisters, each sister usually works alone. In larger monasteries they would actually have workshops - fifteen people would be sewing all day. Imagine that. Here it is more likely that one sister is going to be sewing. We come together at noon for our midday meal, our main meal. During that meal there is a spiritual reading, which is customary in monasteries, so that we are thinking about spiritual things. We are feeding our souls as well as our bodies. After lunch all the sisters help to clean up and then go back to work. We can have some quiet time in the afternoon if we need. At 5:00 p.m. there is ninth hour, vespers, and compline. We finish by 6:30 p.m., we have something to eat and spend our evenings in quiet work and prayer. In the summer evenings, the sisters might work in the garden because it is cooler. The sisters retire when they need to and start again the next morning. So when children visit the monastery and we tell them what we do, they are somewhat disappointed - dishes, vacuum, dust - things that they do. But each thing that we do is in the house of God. We have to remember that it is not just boring work, but that it is an offering of our labors to God and taking care of His house and being stewards of His house. We live here, but many, many other people visit. As a result, we have to keep the monastery in a special condition so when people come they can refresh themselves and find peace, harmony, and order. So in the atmosphere here, they can withdraw from the hassles of their life and be quiet.
T.: You mentioned monasticism in Europe. You had spent some time at Varatec Monastery in Romania, which is a large monastery, approximately four hundred nuns. It is located very close to Agapia, which is another large monastery. How would you compare the monastic experience in Romania to this country?
M.C.: One of the similarities is that an Orthodox nun can go into any Orthodox monastery in the world and feel quite at home very quickly. That is a beautiful thing. In Orthodoxy, it is just one monastic life. So we could travel to any country and feel quite at home. With the Church's liturgical cycle, although the time of vespers might be different, the basic vespers would be the same. Even if we don't understand the language, we would understand where we are in vespers. . . .
The age of the monastery makes some difference. One thing I was very impressed by while traveling in Romania - they often have public greeting rooms, large halls where guests are greeted and there are portraits of various abbesses on the wall, as well as a long list on a plaque of the abbess' name and the dates of her tenure. The plaque was several yards long. I just stood there thinking that there is so much history they have behind them. In this country it is kind of like trail blazing, breaking ground. We can't move forward without weighing how we want to do something in our monastery; whether it would be accepted by the neighbors (imagine that!) - a new monastery just telling the neighbors who we are and why we dress this way; how the Church would accept this in this country. These things would not even be a question in Eastern Europe. Monasticism has been there as long as the Church, and people are used to it. Here, we might be asked more frequently to visit a parish and talk about our lives, whereas in Greece or Romania that probably wouldn't happen. If people wanted to hear about a monastery, they would go to a monastery for a visit.
T.: This community was started and for many years guided by Mother Alexandra, the former princess Ileana of Romania. It was one of the earliest monasteries for women in the United States. What are some of the challenges in sustaining a monastery in this country?
M.C.: I think one of the greatest things that Mother Alexandra will be remembered for is her stability. When she was starting the monastery over thirty years ago when she was one of the first nuns in this country, people really thought she was crazy. No matter how much people questioned her or how much she questioned inside herself whether it was God's will, whether it would ever grow, she never stopped doing it. She never gave up. We too are asked to continue the legacy of stability. It means very much in our culture.
T.: You had mentioned before that the monastery works as a community and that the sisters are provided for in terms of their basic needs. How does the monastery support itself?
M.C.: I didn't list that as one of the challenges to sustaining a monastery, although most people might think that the finances would be one of the biggest challenges. We live in a very expensive time. What it costs to keep this monastery open would probably shock anybody. But Christ said that if we seek first the Kingdom of God, everything we need will be given to us. He was speaking truth. He keeps His side of the bargain, so to speak, because it is a miracle. Our monastery has really always been supported by donations, almost exclusively. We do some small projects. We have a little shop in which we sell mounted icons, prayer ropes, etc. But most of our support comes from free will donations. These donations are received from people who receive our journal, Life Transfigured, or from people who stay in our guesthouses. We have been publishing our journal for the entire history of our monastery. It is sent out three times a year, free of charge, but many people send a donation in response to the journal. Pilgrims are also welcome to stay in our guesthouses, free of charge, although they often leave a gift.
T.: What draws pilgrims to Holy Transfiguration Monastery?
M.C.: People are spiritually hungry. The world we live in is very noisy and stressful. They come to get away from the stress of the world, the noise, the busyness. One of the biggest complaints people have is busyness. They enter into this atmosphere. There is quiet and not a lot of distractions. The only things we have on our walls are icons. We don't watch television, we don't have radios playing, so that we can be thinking more about God. The visitors appreciate hearing our liturgical cycle. In the parishes they mostly hear only liturgy on Sunday, not the daily cycle that monasteries do. They also appreciate the fact that our services have always been in English. That was something about which Mother Alexandra felt strongly. Some people come from their particular parish or jurisdiction in which they have never heard English. They like hearing English here. Families come. There are some beautiful things happening with families in the Church with parents really taking the faith very seriously. They want to expose their children to more than just a parish. They want to expose them to monasticism and the quiet and peace of a monastery - the prayerful atmosphere. And it is a holy place - not because we are holy (although we are striving to be so), but because prayer has been going on here everyday for thirty-two years. Prayer sanctifies the place, and people feel it. Even non-Orthodox people feel a difference when they come here.
T.: What counsel would you give to a woman who feels called to the monastic way of life?
M.C.: One of the first things we ask is that they start visiting several monasteries, or if they feel they like our monastery, that they make several visits. Through those short visits they can begin to discern whether they think they would really like to do this. It does happen that I receive letters from women who, before they have even visited a monastery, have already quit their jobs and decided to come. I have to send back a "red light" saying, first things first. We shouldn't give everything away and hop on a bus and come. There is a period of discernment. Our monastery asks that they visit. Then after a few short visits if they want to pursue this, they take a leave of absence from their jobs, and come and stay for a couple of months and think about it more. Besides visiting, I would say to keep the commandments of Christ, go to church, keep a daily prayer, not to exaggerate their spiritual lives. What I mean by that, is not to start dressing in black or covering their hair, or stop talking with their friends, or stop eating meat. Everything has to be put in order, and we can't jump the gun. We shouldn't be drawing attention to ourselves. Take things slow, and easy and natural. Still, I say to keep the commandments and live the teachings of the Church and the teachings of Christ and not look at this time as the last chance to sew those wild oats - doing something we have to repent of later. Stay somewhere in the middle. Do some reading but not too much. One can come with too many preconceived notions and too many "answers" and then she has to be corrected. Keep the life of the Church - keep the fasts, daily prayer, go to liturgy on Sunday, confession and communion, visit monasteries.
T.: Is there any formal theological education for those that enter the monastery?
M.C.: In our monastery we don't have it in a very formal way. In some monasteries in Europe it might be more formal. In most monasteries, the new novice would be learning simply by entering into the atmosphere, by watching other nuns, by being assigned jobs and learning how to do them in the monastery way, and by going to church. Sometimes a new sister can kind of panic and think that she is not at all on the right track, thinking, "There must be something more." But the monastic life is a long distance run. We don't learn it all in three months, or even six months or even three years. It is a daily learning. She has to slow down her pace from what she may have had in the world and in her prior formal education. The education she gets here is mostly through the liturgical cycle, as every day we are hearing the psalms and something of the lives of the saints of the day through the hymns to those saints. At the reading at lunch, we are learning more of the spiritual teachings of the Church. We are surrounded by icons. Sometimes the saints are looking at us and want to tell us something or draw our attention to their lives. The Church realizes that in a monastery there is full-time training, seven days a week.
T.: Many women today lead incredibly hectic lives. They are very involved in the upbringing of the children, usually maintaining the home, and perhaps, working outside the home. Although they have not chosen the monastic life, how can monasticism inform their lives?
M.C.: Traditionally, married people have often come to monasteries for spiritual counsel, for confession, for communion, for prayer. In the Church we have a tradition where just those women you describe would come to the monastery to receive something for themselves. It might be the refreshment of just being a little bit quiet for a short period of time. One thing that women can learn from us is that we also are very busy. We often feel that we don't have enough time. We try to keep our work in perspective. Sometimes I am very overwhelmed by the things that I have to do. Things on the calendar that I have to do - speaking engagements or something going on at the monastery, keeping various appointments, keeping in touch with the sisters. I say to myself that if I died tomorrow those things wouldn't matter. The panic, the anxiety, the confusion are all signs of the devil. We have to quiet ourselves. If God is asking us to do this, He is giving us the strength to do it. We can ask Him to give us the peace to do it. We must remember what is really important is to prepare for our eternal life. To remember that the work has to be done with love. It is not just getting the housework done, but getting it done with prayer and love. Menial tasks that everyone has to do around the house, the mother of God also had to do them. She was a housewife and mother for thirty years because we know that Jesus lived with his family for thirty years before He went out to preach. So imagine, she was sweeping the floor and cooking Him dinner for thirty years - cleaning His sandals. That tells us that there is something holy about those things. Something salvific about those things if we do them in the right way with the attitude of prayer. Mother Maria, an Orthodox nun who founded a monastery in England, said, "We are not called to the great conquest of evil but to small acts of love." In a monastery if we are going to cook dinner for our family, we say a prayer before we cook, we try to pray while we are cooking, at least remember God in some way or at least pray that our family would be nourished spiritually as well as physically. We strive to transform our life into a liturgy. I think people from the world can learn those customs, those little spiritual practices from monastics that could transform their lives as well.
This can also be extended to their work lives outside the home. We are Orthodox Christians wherever we are - followers of Christ. One of the exciting things about women who are not monastics is that you are in a very key role for Christianity and the Church. I am in the monastery and have a particular role. You should never think that your role is less than mine, less important or not important at all. Some people think that only the priests and monastics are important. Fr. Paisius (an elder in Greece who died about eight years ago) used to compare the monastic to the radio operator of an army during a war. He was located alone where it was quiet, where he could concentrate on the signals he was getting. That was his job, but a lot of other people were fighting the battle. That is how all of you are. Those in the world have an opportunity to bring Christ into the workplace, into the family, into the neighborhood, into the mall - everywhere. That is a fantastic opportunity. Our attitude and how we live our lives will speak for us. . . . If each of us, where we find ourselves, lives the best life we can by keeping the commandments and loving each other and praying to God, we will be those lights in the world that this nation is looking for. We can carry the burdens of one another. Just look around your neighborhood and you will see how much people are burdened. We should pray for our neighbors, treat them with kindness, and love them.
T.: Once again, I want to thank you for taking the time for this interview. You have given us much to think about.
For further information or to arrange a retreat or visit contact:
Holy Transfiguration Monastery
321 Monastery Ln.
Ellwood City, PA 16117-6531