Story by Kh. Barbara Sorensen
Flying into Pittsburgh, I was anxiously anticipating what experiences I might find ahead of me. How will I converse with these holy sisters in Christ? How will I open my eyes to see and my heart to accept the eternal lessons that might lie ahead?
I had several reasons to visit the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration. I had hoped to find my dear friend and former All Saints member, novice Sister Mary, acclimated to and comfortable with the monastic life she had recently chosen. I wanted to interview some of the nuns to gain a deeper understanding of their lives and write about them. And I desperately needed a “peaceful rest for my soul, away from the busy-ness of the world” as I had read in the monastery brochure.
A visit to the monastery can provide a peaceful rest for your soul,
an opportunity to get away from the busy-ness of the world
and a time to experience God’s presence and guidance.
We hope that you will plan to visit us.
Smiling Sister Mary met me at the airport on a bit of a dreary, drizzly day. No matter, the warmth of being reunited with a dear friend in Christ shone brighter than the gloomy day. (I must admit that at first it was quite strange seeing Sister Mary in her all black garb for the first time, but she appeared to be comfortable, putting me at ease.)
Driving with Sister Mary into Ellwood City, 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, I saw a small town reminiscent of other small Pennsylvania towns with which I was familiar. As we drove along some winding two-lane roads, I marveled at the green, lush foliage and lovely spring flowers — dogwoods, lilies of the valley, and luscious lilacs. They brought back many fond memories of living in Western Maryland as a young girl. Already my soul was being refreshed!
Turning left at the stone sign that signified the Monastery grounds, we slowly followed the path while Sister Mary pointed out sights that I knew I must capture and carry back in my mind’s eye. On the right was the cemetery where we would find Mother Alexandra, (formerly Princess Ileana of Romania) founder of the monastery. On the left was one of the guesthouses, St. Macrina’s, and an outdoor pavilion for worship. On the right was the gazebo where folks gathered to eat and hold meetings outdoors. Across the way was the main building which housed the chapel, refractory, library, bookstore, hospitality room, and the cloister, housing the sisterhood. Then at the end of the path near the woods was St. Bridget’s guesthouse, my home for the long weekend. (Later when I met Mother Barbara, she invited me to make a “nest” for myself there and relax, which I readily did!)
Upon entering the chapel, I stood in awe of the magnificent iconography—“Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us”
(Hebrews 12:1). As I soaked in the holy space, it felt as if layer upon layer of accumulated weight fell away. I was feeling lighter. Simply standing in the presence of Our Risen Lord, His blessed Mother and all the saints was awesome beyond words.
Of particular importance in the narthex was the Healing Corner. Housed in this corner are icons of saints who have been known to heal, various oils, prayers, and lists of dear ones suffering from assorted ailments. I felt compelled to visit that corner often during my stay and pray for family and friends who are suffering.
Another very powerful point of interest in the narthex was the reliquary where relics of many saints have been housed and venerated. This has been a great source of blessing and comfort for the monastics as well as for visiting pilgrims.
Dining in the refractory with the Mothers, Sisters and guests, we sensed our oneness in Christ as together we sang, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”.
Abbess Mother Christophora blessed the food, invited us to take our seats, and encouraged us to enjoy our lunch together. Though a fasting day, Mother Galina whipped up a fabulously tasty Chinese dish.
Daily Prayers and Worship
The cycle of prayers and liturgy uplifted us to the heavens. The Friday night Akathist to the Blessed Theotokos on behalf of our youth was very moving. As Mother Christophora read the Akathist, each of us silently prayed from prayer lists—sick children, young soldiers, struggling teens, tiny infants—each mentioned by name. I was reminded of our Lord’s words: “let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of heaven”
A unique situation occurred on Saturday night. Fr. Thomas Hopko who typically serves the Vigil was out of town. Therefore, the nuns just kept joyfully singing the Paschal celebration. It felt like Pascha Sunday all over again! Wanting to stay in the moment, I took in the sights of beautiful flowers adorning the icons, the sounds of angelic voices, the smell of incense wafting as Sister Martha passed by with the incenser.
Sunday Liturgy felt like and sounded like worship in our parish. I felt like I was at home with family. I noticed as guests arrived, Mother Christophora noted who they were and later sang the Paschal hymn in their language. I felt sure those guests felt at home, too.
Thank God, I got up early on Monday morning at 6:30 am to pray Matins and the Hours. Most guests had left for home so it was very quiet. Such a peaceful time of prayer, a great parting memory for my return to Raleigh!
As I drove away from the beautifully serene grounds, renewed in body and soul, I prayed I would carry the spirit of this holy place in my heart and share it with others.
A Day in the Life . . .
All of the Mothers and sisters have obediences (or duties) that they must perform throughout the day. It’s hard work keeping the monastery running smoothly — tending the beautiful gardens, maintaining the bookstore, preparing the meals, doing the dishes, keeping up with the paperwork, just to name a few tasks. While all the nuns perform their assigned obediences as part of their worship life, their lives are punctuated with corporate morning and evening prayers. In addition, each has her own personal prayer rule. These prayers are prayed in their individual cells.
Although praying daily for the world is their primary ministry, their second essential ministry is hospitality. Food and shelter for the body, comfort and prayers for the soul are provided for visiting pilgrims, both orthodox and non-orthodox. The annual pilgrimage on their feast day, August 6, brings hundreds to celebrate. Yet the one needy soul who shows up at the door is warmly greeted, as well.
Words of Wisdom
It was my privilege and blessing to have the opportunity to interview Mother Christophora and a few of the nuns. The following gems of wisdom were graciously shared in response to a couple of questions that I posed:
Abbess Mother Christophora’s Message to the World
Man is made in the image and likeness of God and is capable of knowing God, even being like God through grace. We can come to know life beyond daily experience of material things. We can know we have eternal life, which begins here on earth. We can be in communion with God every moment of our lives–in every detail of life, of our responsibilities, our relationships with others, every task we do whether at work, at home or in church. We can feel God’s presence with us at all times and in every place. We can learn to speak to Him on the altar of our hearts, whether alone or with others. God is real. He reveals Himself to us, and He wants us to know Him. Knowing Him is different from knowing about him. We can learn about God by reading books; but we come to know Him through prayer, silence, and through relationships with others, through nature, art and beauty… even through noise, especially of children.
Mother Christophora’s Message to the Parish
We are members of Christ. St. Paul says the Church is the Body of Christ, and we all are members with different responsibilities. Each responsibility is important and needed and is not to be neglected. Some are called to serve in church, even in the altar, while others sing or read during the divine services. Yet they are not the only ones that make up the church, nor should they be considered more important than the other members.
All of us gather together to serve the Holy Liturgy–the old, the young, the infirmed, the healthy — everyone serves the Liturgy together. In the Orthodox Church the priest is not allowed to serve the Liturgy alone with no one else in church.
Besides serving the Liturgy all members, also, have to care for the material side of the church. When Jesus Christ, Son of God, took on human flesh, He saved our life in the world and all material things. He blessed His Church, His body, to encompass material aspects so all care of the physical structure of the church, and its social extensions, are blessed by Christ. So if we clean the church or the parish hall, empty the trash, order the candles, make the coffee, teach a Sunday school class—all are part of serving the Liturgy. Even our personal preparation of prayers on Saturday and Sunday, choosing clothing, polishing our shoes — all are part of the Liturgy.
Mother Magdalena (a nun for 17 years)
“When you need a sign from God, ask. Then make a promise to follow it.” These words guided her when she told God she needed an answer “in her hand” to show her whether to follow the monastic way of life. The answer came by mail when a monk wrote to her stating, “For you, monasticism.”
Mother Karitina (a nun for 23 years)
Her message for parishioners: “Listen to the prayers of the priest. Listen to the Epistle. Listen to the Gospel. Don’t fret if you can’t recall the readings because the Holy Spirit will give you Grace by merely being in the presence of these words.”
“Have a prayer rule. Make it small and stick to it in sickness and health.”
“Talk to God about everything and anything, silently. He will teach you.”
“If you are interested in the monastic life, first practice obedience without murmuring to whomever is close to you. See how that works. How many good or bad feelings are created in your heart? Then come and see.”
Sister Mary (novice)
“The monastic life is not about giving up the world. We limit contact with the world, but when we do it’s with the purpose of embracing the world in prayer. Orthodoxy is new in our country so it is important for us to pray that people are open to the monastic life. The gain is so much greater than anything given up. If you are called to serve and be in the world, though, then do so in the spirit of peace knowing God is in control.”
Mother Elizabeth (oldest in the sisterhood)
“Thank you for the visit. Your coming to see Sister Mary reminds me that …goodness and mercy shall follow her all the days of her life and she shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Want to Visit the Monastery?
1. First, seek a blessing to visit from Father Nicholas
2. Contact the monastery (724-758-4002 or email@example.com) and ask if you may come for a visit. Have some possible dates in mind. (Note: They get very busy during the summer months.)
3. When you call, ask to speak with Mother Barbara. She keeps the guest schedule and will know what’s available.
4. If you plan to fly, Pittsburgh is your destination. Ask Mother Barbara if there is anyone available to pick you up at the airport.
5. While there is no fee to stay in the guesthouses, a donation is acceptable.
6. You are not required to attend all the services that are available, though you will want to attend at least some.
7. There is no special dress code. You may dress comfortably, yet modestly.
8. If you want to take a gift, the nuns enjoy sweets!
9. Feel free to contact me with any additional questions: firstname.lastname@example.org