The Pilgrimage

April 19, 2008

We rounded the turn just as the clouds began to give a soft drizzle, providing a welcome comfort from the hot North Carolina sun. The sun was still shining, most obviously noticeable on the white triple bar cross in the clearing — the harbinger of our arrival to the Panagia Prousiotissa monastery, a treasure of spiritual wealth, where a handful of nuns have been called to work out their salvation…

The Abbess and the nun beneath her welcomed us with the warmest smiles and gentlest eyes I had seen since my childhood. It was no task of obedience for them to greet us warmly, nor was it an act of obligation for them to welcome us as pilgrims to a part of their inner life, they were genuinely happy to see us, we were their joy, and we were their blessing. From the moment we stepped foot onto the grounds, it was as though I found a small paradise, where the earth itself was sanctified, and nature, in all ways, glorified its Creator… from the soft drizzle of rain, the gentle southern wind, the pine trees and the beautiful gardens which the nuns there had labored diligently for — how manifold are Thy works, O Lord! In Wisdom You have created them all.

The moment of arrival in and of itself was worth the trip, but truly, beauty had not even begun to reveal itself.

I bowed my heads humbly to the nuns, honoring them as the angels that they were, and they smiled back to me. The peace and love they seemed to show, and their gentle eyes, seemingly windows into their very souls, haven’t left me to this day. I count it a blessing to know that they remembered me even for a moment in their prayers. They led us all after their warm greetings to a place where they had prepared a wonderful Lenten meal, a pasta with shrimp sauce, some fresh cut fruit, and homemade bread, all served with water. The nuns left us to our meal, whether because they had their own obediences or as was their custom, I could not say. I was blessed to sit next to Father, who told me stories of his own obediences at this very monastery.

He had helped plant many of the flowers that we were now seeing fully bloomed, which was more than a blessing to Father Mark. He asked the nuns, humbly, if he could just put his face in lilacs and smell them. Seeing Father, with his cassock, pectoral cross and hat bury his nose in the lilacs as a warm smile grew across his face is an image that has also stuck with me to this day. Truly it is a blessing from God to find such happiness from such a relatively simple creation. We went into their small bookstore, where they had icons, incense, charcoal, censers, candles, Lenten foods, and other such things ready. I left with a beautiful prayer rope, an icon of St. Elias, of St. Paul the Apostle, and the Transfiguration. The nuns were happy with my choices, telling me that I had picked such beautiful icons.

After we had made our purchases with them, we sat for a small dessert with the nuns, who naturally touched nothing but were eager to serve. This, my friends, is where the most beautiful and striking part happened. It’s hard, even now, to not be visited with joyful tears at the recollection of such a beautiful thing. I won’t share it all, as words cannot rightly do it justice, but I will do my best to recall some of what has stayed with me to this moment.

The nun under the Abbess, who seemed to do a little more of the speaking, welcomed us once more with a smile. To this point, none of them seemed to say very much, but now was the time when their grace-filled mouths would bless us with the edification we came so eagerly seeking.

We spoke of several things…

Father Mark told us of how he began to come to Orthodoxy, and it set the tone for all of what was to come. He is a convert from Roman Catholicism, who, in a nutshell, visited holy places of Russia. He had lapsed from his faith, and went to confess to his priest of the time… and as he recalled this, he said in a soft whisper, “I always loved confession…” tears filled his eyes, as they grew distant, and I knew that he was recalling something of spiritual importance. It wasn’t long after this that he was Orthodox. He went on to tell us of how, visiting places such as those are by no accident, they are not mistakes, nor was it an accident or mistake that we were are Panagia Prousiotissa, but Divine Providence had led us here. I looked at my surroundings as one of the nuns began to speak after him, that “Here at the Panagia’s monastery, she visits us and blesses us in a very special and individual way… many come here and ask us, ‘What is this peace I feel?’ ‘What is this beauty I see?’ and we know that it is the Panagia smiling warmly upon us all.” She went on to tell us of how this was all built under the care of Father Ephraim, who told them upon leaving that their obedience is to show sheer love and hospitality to everyone, let this monastery be known for these things, and surely they had been succeeding in this for some time.

The nun under the Abbess, upon being asked by one of our parishioners, “When did you feel called to this life?” She spoke, after going silent and tears filled her eyes, and recomposing herself enough to speak: “I believe that the Almighty inscribed upon my heart the desire for this life before I was conceived. It is the hardest thing I have ever done… but it is the most peaceful, the most free…” the room was peacefully silent for a short time afterwards, as I glorified God within my sinful heart.

This was not armchair theology. This was not something I was reading in a book. This is not something to be pondered with the mind. This was living Orthodoxy.

A nun asked the Abbess, “Would you like to say anything?” Nothing. It was silent. At first thought, my sinful mind moved me to think that perhaps it was rude of her to not respond to such a question, but I remembered the story of the Desert Fathers, and of the Abbot who told his novice “If they are not edified by my silence, they will not be edified by my words.”

Father asked the Abbess, softly, “Can you tell us about prayer?” She looked down, and Father added, “If this is an unfair question please forgive me.” She was very quiet, and only seemed to say what was beneficial. She leaned towards the nun next to her and spoke perhaps 8 seconds in the Greek language.

“She says that she cannot answer, for this is something that is so new to her. She is only beginning herself.” Father again asked her forgiveness, slipping his prayer rope through his fingers.

Forgive me, for all of this is only a glimpse into what took place, and so much of this I have to lock within my own heart.

Upon leaving, I went to the nun who spoke more often, as her edifying story of being born to be a nun edified me so greatly. I thanked her for showing me such sincere hospitality, and told her that I am greatly blessed simply to have stood in this place. She held my arm and smiled at me, a smile which nearly causes me to weep, and told me that we are their joy, and I am always welcome to come back. She gave me a small card which I keep in my wallet, with a phone number which I intend to call very soon, if only to hear the voice of angels.

Know only that this brief recollection cannot possibly do justice to the visit… make an effort to visit this place for yourself and know, with certainty, you will be standing in a new Eden. Know that if your heart is even slightly open to it, it will be filled with such graces as will never leave you.

Forgive me a sinner.

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In considering that Sunday marked the anniversary of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which reaffirmed the Faith of the Fathers of the previous six councils of the Church, and returned the holy icons to the churches against the heresy of iconoclasm, I’ve been thinking about the wider implications for the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox Church teaches that we humans are made in the image and likeness of God, and that our sole reason for existence is to grow in that image and likeness, becoming more and more like what He is (in his Energies, as we can never comprehend the unknowable Essence of God).  This is a high calling, and one that is completely impossible for mankind after the Fall; this is why we need the redemptive saving of Christ, to restore for us the way of communion with God, through the denial of our selves and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, imparted to us by the Mysteries of the Church.  It should be pointed out here that the Greek word for image is ikon–we are called to be icons of God.   It only makes sense, then, that our temples should be adorned with the icons of those who have succeed  in this task–those in whom the Triumph of Orthodoxy has been written on their hearts, lived out in their flesh.

I have nothing but the greatest respect for any Saint of the Church, for those we know and those we have forgotten.  Primarily, this is because I cannot foresee this process of sanctification, the achievement of theosis, ever becoming a reality in me.  I am the weakest willed, most sinful, most hypocritical ‘Christian’ of which I know.  So, while I proclaim the triumph of the return of the holy icons, I lament that Orthodoxy has not yet flowered to triumph in my soul.  I can only blame myself, as I, the burdened sinner always flee from the Good.

May the prayers of our Holy Fathers, especially of St. Anthony the Great, lead us into the richness of the kingdom, and help us to restore in our souls the image of the indescribable God.