Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"...For the children of the desolate one will be more..."

Newsletter Reflection 3 of 6

A Reflection from Mother Gabriella about her life profession on Nov. 8

A couple months ago, a priest-friend of mine joked about my upcoming life profession, saying, “Your name is going to be Mother soon!  I am going to call you ‘Mom’ – and I’m coming to YOU for spiritual direction!”  Thankfully he was only kidding, but his words did strike a chord in my heart.  It was true!  Soon I would be making my life profession and setting aside biological motherhood to fully embrace my vocation as a nun and spiritual mother of priests and of souls.

The more I reflected on spiritual motherhood, the more I felt confident that it was intimately connected with two other realities in my life – being a daughter of God the Father and a Bride of Christ.  I realized that I could not give myself fully to Christ without a deep knowledge of the Father’s love for me and that I would have no love to offer Jesus as my Spouse if I had not first received the love of the Father.  The gift of spiritual motherhood really seemed to flow from my relationship with the Father and my union with Christ as His Bride, and from this communion, I sensed a great potential for fruitfulness.

With her Goddaughter, Grace
In imitation of the Theotokos (Mary), I truly pondered all these things in my heart as I approached my profession day.  There is so much that could be said of such a momentous day, but the moment that will be forever engraved on my heart was when Bishop John placed my wedding ring on my finger.  Instantly, I knew in my heart that I had been espoused to Christ, which was beautiful and overwhelming all at once.  As I stood before our icon of Christ the Bridegroom, I was in awe.  Then another thought hit me – I would soon be receiving Jesus in the Eucharist and sealing the covenant of our union!  The spousal encounter of the Eucharist had never been more real to me than in the moments leading up to my first Eucharist as a fully-professed nun.  After receiving Jesus, I had a beautiful encounter with Him in the enclosed garden of my heart.  I knew immediately that our union during that time was going to bear fruit, but I figured it would be years before I would see it, if ever.

The rest of the evening was incredibly blessed, from the greeting line in the church to the beautiful reception where so many of our family and friends gathered to celebrate our profession.  As the evening came to a close, I had an opportunity to talk with some of my dear friends, a married couple, who had approached me with a question.  They have been married for several years and had trouble conceiving, but through God’s grace they are preparing to give birth to a boy early next year.  We stepped to the side and they took the opportunity to ask if I would be the godmother of their little boy!  My heart was elated!  Due to community constraints, I am not able to be the official godmother, but I assured them that I would be honored to be his spiritual godmother.  Then suddenly my eyes filled with tears – Jesus had shown me the fruit of our union!  This little boy, who had been conceived through much prayer and patience, was now conceived in my heart on my profession day!  I had a spiritual son!  Just as surely as I knew I was espoused to Christ, I knew that this little one was His gift to me.  God is never outdone in generosity.  Thanks be to God for the gift of my vocation and spiritual motherhood!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Gaze of Merciful Love

A reflection for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son by Sr. Iliana

“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

On the last day of my pre-tonsure retreat, my director gave me one more assignment: to “go and review all that God had taught me during the retreat.” As I sat in the chapel and closed my eyes, I could see the image of the prodigal son and his father. At first I dismissed it because I had not prayed about this parable on the retreat, so I thought it would not be a good “review.” As hard as I tried though, I couldn’t shake the image, so I finally gave up and asked the Lord what He was trying to teach me. There were two things that struck me as I imagined the scene of the prodigal son. I noticed the father gazing at the road, waiting for a glimpse of his son, and I noticed the son turning around to return to his father. I would later realize that this story was the best review possible, since it summarized everything the Lord was teaching me about His mercy.

During the retreat I had given my life confession. I had told the priest everything I had ever done, and in response he told me that I was “innocent and pure.” I was shocked. I realized that somewhere in the back of my mind, in a place I had refused to look, I had never really believed that I had been forgiven. I felt pretty confident that I was absolved of my little weekly infidelities, but I thought that if the priest really knew everything I had ever done, that would be a different story. Yet here I had revealed everything I had ever done and I found a father who saw only innocence and purity. I had found a Father who ran to wrap me in an eternal embrace, who rejoiced at my coming, who saw my return, who saw only through the eyes of merciful love. I could suddenly see myself as the Father sees me – He doesn’t see my sin, all He sees is my return to Him. Even when I was still very far away, He saw me coming and already rejoiced and ran to embrace me.

The Sunday of the Prodigal Son is one of the preparatory Sundays for the Great Fast. Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia says, “Repentance is the door through which we enter Lent, the starting point of our journey to Pascha. And to repent signifies far more than self-pity or futile regret over things done in the past. The Greek term metanoia means ‘change of mind’…repentance implies action: ‘I will rise up and go.’” The word conversion comes from the Latin convertere, which means to turn towards. There is something significant just in that action of turning around, of rising up and going towards the Father.

Pope St. John Paul II said, “From [Christ] we must learn the loving gaze with which he reconciled men with the Father and with themselves, communicating to them that power which alone is able to heal the whole person”(Orientale Lumen). I had always longed to “feel” forgiven, as I was sure the prodigal son had felt forgiven when the father embraced him, but soon I realized that the forgiveness was not in the embrace, but long before. The forgiveness was in his gaze. That’s what made the father run. Living in the knowledge of His loving gaze brought incredible healing to my soul. In the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete we sing, “You see me weeping and You run to meet me, like the Father toward his Prodigal Son.”

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"For the sake of the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross"

Happy Feast of St. Anthony of the Desert and First Sunday of the Triodion: the Sunday of the Publican & the Pharisee! 

Newsletter Reflection 2 of 6

A Reflection from Mother Cecilia about her Profession on Nov. 8

After our profession, Sr. Iliana commented to me, “At the beginning of the profession you were very serious, but at a certain point you were suddenly smiley and didn’t stop smiling!”  I knew exactly what she was talking about.  As I stood before the bishop and responded to each of his questions, “Yes, Master, with God’s help,” I felt the weight of these life-long promises I was making.  Then the bishop began to read to us the catechesis that follows his questions. These instructions, too, are very serious.  But then the bishop said the following words, and everything changed in my heart:

“Always be sensible and mature, ever inspired by the vision of the good things of eternity, which are the desire of everyone who lives for God.  Think of the martyrs and all the holy ones who have pleased God since the world began; think of their sweat and labor, of the blood they shed, and how they obtained these eternal riches only through death.  Endure difficulties as a loyal soldier of Christ, for because of us He became poor, and dwelt in our midst so that we might share the riches of His Kingdom.” 

At that moment, God held out the Kingdom to me. I understood its immense joy, both in the next life and in this life, for “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21). I wanted to give everything—my whole life and my whole being—to receive this Kingdom. I wanted to sacrifice everything to live for this Kingdom, not only for myself but in order to draw the whole world into it as well.  I wanted to give myself totally to the One who was offering Himself to me. I did, as best as I could, and I was filled with incredible joy.

It is monastic tradition to remain in the monastery chapel for five days after the profession, “resting from all work, except reading, and abiding in spiritual contemplation and mental prayer.”  When this profound experience of union with my Bridegroom was completed, the first piece of news I heard was about the attacks in Paris.  For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that I might be called to be a “red” martyr—to literally shed my blood for Jesus.  I realized that the “white” martyrdom of monastic life is training for that.  Each day as we “die” to ourselves in the little moments, setting aside our own wills and desires for love of God and others, we are preparing to give the bigger offering of our lives.

When I came out of my five-day retreat, or “honeymoon,” I also experienced another reality: I really felt like a mother!  I instantly received a great motherly concern and tender love for every person, all of whom are my spiritual children.  Monastic life makes even more sense to me from the vantage point of a mother.  A mother sets herself aside for her children. She “dies daily” (1 Cor 15:31) for them, and this is her great joy.

Martyrs and mothers teach me so much, but it is ultimately Jesus, my Bridegroom, who will help me to die for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Just as God held out the Kingdom to me during my profession, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, “For the sake of the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross…” (12:2). Jesus’ infinite love compelled Him to run to the cross, and it is only by transforming me into this love that I will be able to be the offering of love that I vowed to be.

Friday, January 15, 2016

"Blow upon my garden..." Newsletter Reflection 1 of 6

We published our winter newsletter in December, but if you, dear online reader, didn't have a chance to read our reflections (or were overwhelmed by the number of pages...), we decided to offer them each individually on our blog!  So here is the first:  

"Blow upon my garden that its perfumes may spread abroad."
Song of Songs 4:16

An Update from Mother Theodora

The verse above expresses the awesomeness of God’s particular love for us in 2015. We were very excited when we learned that 2015 was going to be dedicated to consecrated life, but we had no idea how blown away we would be through the winds of change by the end of the year. The breath of the Bridegroom blew upon the garden of the monastery and in the gardens of our hearts. The currents were constant and often changed in intensity. Sometimes it was still or gentle and other times it shifted from an exhilarating gust to what seemed to be a hurricane.

Our monastery underwent some major transformations from buildings to spiritual formation. When the needed major renovations were in full force from February to July, it seemed at times like a whirlwind of noise and distractions and moved us to seek even more stillness in our hearts in order to hear God’s voice in the gentle breeze (1 Kg 19:12). This stillness is necessary for the perfume of our garden to become concentrated in order to await another breath of God to spread His intoxicating grace within and beyond the monastery.

The Bridegroom’s caressing breeze profoundly affected the monastery’s spiritual development.  Jacqui, now Sr. Emilia, and Moki, now Sr. Iliana, have joyfully taken the next step in their monastic vocations and became rasophore nuns (novices) on September 7. Our new dokimos (postulant), Victoria, who entered on September 30, has been an enthusiastic and delightful addition to our family.

It was a glorious and awesome experience of heaven on earth when over five hundred people witnessed Mother Cecilia and Mother Gabriella make their life profession on November 8 at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Parma, Ohio. During the profession, Bishop John gave us a beautiful surprise by officially appointing me as hegumena (abbess) for the monastery. He gave me a pectoral cross he received from Pope St. John Paul II. I can’t describe the joy and excitement I experienced when he placed the cross over by head. One of my greatest joys since then is being able to give a blessing to my daughters every morning and night. I hope that the reflections in this newsletter may be a waft of perfume for you from our spiritual experiences this year.

Our monastic garden is growing, and in order for it to thrive, we need your prayers and financial support to bloom, to be fruitful and to spread its perfume abroad. In addition to our daily needs, we are also in need of additional funds for our renovations which have not been completed due to the cost of unforeseen repairs. We appreciate any financial assistance you are able to give. If you are not able to help us at this time, we sincerely ask for your prayers. Thank you for walking with us in our monastic garden as the Bridegroom continues to blow new life upon it. We thank God and all of you for your faithful love, prayers and support! Be assured of our prayers for you and your loved ones. God is with us!