Monday, July 15, 2024

Obedient Unto Sickness

A Reflection by Mother Petra

During the Great Fast, we were blessed to visit the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania.  We arrived in time to join the nuns for prayer in their chapel at noon, then joined them for lunch, spent the afternoon in conversation and sharing, prayed Vespers with them, and departed for our own monastery. 

In these nuns, who have decades more experience than our young monastery, we saw a mirror of the beauty and significance of our own monastic life.  A friend recently said to me, “Sometimes, while I’m driving around running errands, I remember all of you here, praying in your chapel, and I think—that’s why the world continues to exist.”  Of course, being immersed in our life, I don’t have any such sense myself!  Yet as I stood in their chapel, I looked upon these beautiful nuns and glimpsed the same reality:  Faithfulness like this upholds the world.  Like Abraham before the Face of God, interceding for Sodom (“Will You spare it for ten righteous men…?”).

We were moved by our conversations with the nuns, and grateful to receive spiritual wisdom and insight both from Mother Christophora, their abbess, and from the other nuns.  At once point, the topic of sickness in community emerged, and I asked Mother Christophora if she would speak about illness in the monastic life.  She explained that, upon entering the monastic life, it is a common experience to become ill.  Perhaps this is an attack of the evil one to discourage a young monastic, perhaps it is trial permitted by the Lord to try her vocation or purify her motivations, perhaps it is simply the natural result of the real intensity of our monastic life which takes a toll on the body.  But then she shared words of Fr. Thomas Hopko which deeply impressed each of us:  “In this country we don’t have elders, so our illnesses are our elders because they teach us obedience.”  She concluded with her own observation, “Afterall, He [Jesus] didn’t say ‘Take up your cross and fight it’!”

So often, it can seem that illness is an impediment to “real” life—keeping us from fully participating in liturgical prayer or other forms of asceticism, from fasting or keeping vigils to the extent we would desire, from accomplishing as much work as we would prefer, from accepting invitations to give talks or spiritual direction.  Yet isn’t this thwarting of personal expectation, desire, and preference the very definition of asceticism?  Bishop Benedict Aleksiychuk of Chicago recently commented to us that illness is an asceticism the Lord is giving us; we are not choosing it.  Therefore, it is a better asceticism because there is no self-will in it, but rather has the purity of coming direct from the mind of God. 

As a nun who has poor health, I am often pained to see the strain my illnesses place on my sisters.  But what a paradigm shift if we came to see each of these limitations, not as arbitrarily imposed by circumstances beyond our control, but rather as an invitation to deeper surrender and obedience in conformity to the will of the Father!  Since our visit, we have begun referring to our diagnoses as “elders” and “eldresses,” coming to recognize the necessities and treatments (all of them inconvenient!) as an obedience—an asceticism—given by the Lord to the whole community. 

I hope those of you who suffer from illness in the world will also be granted grace to trust that nothing touches you that does not pass through the hands of the Father, and that He knows what He is asking of you:  Perhaps not the service or work you desire to do, but trustful rest, slowing down, the willing sacrifice of pain offered to the Lord with faith in His goodness and power to transform our suffering so that it, like Christ’s, becomes a source of redemption in the world and in our own souls. 

I was recently reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the Sacrament of the Sick.  It teaches that “in a certain way he [the sick person receiving the anointing] is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s Redemptive Passion.  Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.” Further, the sick Christian “contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father.” (CCC, 1521-1522, emphasis mine).  Sickness is not useless, not meaningless!!!  Our surrender to the Father’s will in our sickness is tremendously significant work!  This does not mean we do not seek to alleviate suffering (we should!), but when our efforts fail, or when the treatments themselves prove to be a form of suffering (or, at the very least, inconvenience), let us pray for deeper faith to bow in obedience to the will of God revealed in our circumstances.  Let us cry out with Jesus in the Garden—after pouring out our pain and distress to our good Father, Who attentively gathers all our tears and holds us as we weep—“Yet not my will, but Your will, be done.”  May we be so conformed to Christ, the Obedient One Who was “obedient unto death” (Phil. 2:8), that we consent to be obedient unto sickness, as long as the Lord allows.

Mother Petra praying at the grave of Mother Alexandra (born Princess Ileana of Romania), the foundress of The Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, whose life and writing were significant in her own monastic formation.


Monday, July 1, 2024

Early Summer Updates: A Time of Gratitude

Early summer has been for us a time of gratitude for the Father’s provision and care.  We want to thank all those who came out for our Spring Work Day!  Many families and individuals joined us for several hours of work projects around the monastery, chapel, and grounds.  After our labors, we prayed Vespers together down at the Shrine of Our Lady of Mariapoch, and enjoyed visiting over a potluck dinner.  It gave us joy to be able to fellowship with you, your help eased our burdens.

 A few weeks ago, Olivia (formerly known as Sister Onuphria) discerned that the Lord was not calling her to continue in our monastic life.  She asked us to share with you her gratitude in the following message: 

Thank you to everyone who has been praying for me over the last three years since I entered the monastery. I'm so grateful for your support, and I am especially grateful to the nuns for all of their sisterly love, generosity, and prayer during my time in the monastery and now as I continue on. The last three years have been a tremendous gift. I love the nuns so much and so deeply appreciate my time at Christ the Bridegroom Monastery. Please continue to pray for me while I transition back into the world. 

We are grateful for the years when we were blessed to share daily life with Olivia!  She has our love and prayers as she continues to pursue the Lord.

Earlier in the month, Bishop Benedict (Venedykt Aleksiychuk) of Chicago graced us with his prayerful presence by bringing three of his priests to pray Vespers with us.  We are grateful for the opportunity to pray with our fellow Eastern (Ukrainian) Catholic fathers and brothers!

Our garden is delivering a beautiful yield, both in the form of sunflowers and other blooms, and edible produce.  Several volunteers, both volunteers on the Work Day and also others who offered the gift of their time and energy afterward, helped us put new soil in our raised garden beds.  Now we are reaping a harvest of parsley, arugula, chard, blueberries, and more.  We grateful for the gift of participating in God’s work by cultivating the natural resources He has given us.  

Finally, we were grateful for, and delighted by, the Mullins’ Family’s second annual “Ora et Labora Vacation.”  Don, Rachel, and their children (Eric, Samuel, Amelia & Margaret) camped down at the Shrine of Our Lady of Mariapoch for a week, doing work projects both at the shrine and here at the monastery, spending time together having fun as a family, and joining us for prayers in our chapel.  They brought such energy and love with them, both to prayer and to work!  Their final evening, they invited us down to the shrine for dinner, where Rachel cooked a delicious fast-friendly Indian dinner.  We are grateful for their friendship, faithfulness, and their service for the Lord.

Please remember our first ever Summer Picnic is coming up on Saturday, July 6—and you are invited!  We’ll gather at the Shrine of Our Lady of Mariapoch (across the street from the monastery:  17486 Mumford Rd., Burton, Ohio 44021) for Vespers at 4:30 p.m. in the outdoor chapel, followed by a picnic dinner.  We’ll be happy to visit with you until around 8:30 p.m.  For those who have never visited the monastery before, we’ll be glad to give you a brief tour of the monastery and chapel.  Please bring your own picnic dinner and beverages.  You may also want to bring a picnic blanket or lawn chairs in case we run out of room at the shrine’s picnic tables.  If you plan to attend, RSP using this form so that we can have enough booklets available for Vespers and notify you if anything changes.