I spent the past few days at the St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery, out in southeastern Washington. I may do a few updates with little stories, but first I wanted to post this article. I read this article (which was originally accompanied by a beautiful series of photographs, which are unfortunately no longer online) just before I went to the visit the monastery last year, and I think the reporter did a wonderful job at capturing the spirit of this place. A couple updates on the article – there are now 17 nuns and novices, and a priest has recently moved near the monastery from Alaska to serve the liturgy. Also, behind the cuts are a few of the stories I learned of how a few of the young nuns came to the monastery.
One of the nuns mentioned in the article, Sister Ephraimia, was one I especially wanted to be able to speak with while I was there. I always been interested in her journey. She was the maid of honor in the wedding of my friends Fr. David and Kh. Heather before she became a nun, and their daughter Ephraimia was named after her tonsured name.
All I knew is that she was the first of the American women to come after the three nuns from Greece came. When I see her, she just radiates peace and grace, and I have always wanted to know how she made the journey from being a friend of many people I know up in Alaska, a costmetology student who jumped from one thing to the next with little direction, to being this gracious, mature nun that I see now, who obviously very well respected by the sisters and has been given quite a bit of responsibility by the abbess. I finally got the opportunity to speak to her when Kh. Heather and I took the children over to see the goats, and Kh. Miriam told me more later.
She went on a pilgrimage with her priest to the Holy Land when she was about 20 years old, and spent time at St. Catherine’s on Mt. Sinai and several other monasteries in the Holy Land. She wanted to stay so badly that it was all her priest could do to make her come home to take care of her responsibilities and possessions at home. He was worried he would really have to leave her there. But he talked her into leaving, and she came home and got rid of all her stuff and began visiting monasteries in America, still planning to ultimately become a nun in Greece or the Holy Land. But then someone told her about these three Greek nuns who had arrived in Washington to set up a monastery. She went to visit, and even though she couldn’t speak to them, even though it wasn’t the Old Country monastery she had dreamed of, even though it was at that time just a manufactured home in the woods in dry, lonely Eastern Washington, she loved it. I asked her about how hard it must have been, not being able to talk to the three older nuns, who were unhappy to be sent there from their beloved monastery in the first place, and she got this faraway look in her eyes and said, “It was hard, but there was so much grace for me here.” She met with Elder Ephraim soon after coming and made her wishes to become a nun known, and asked for a blessing to learn Greek. Elder Ephraim actually blessed her lips, making the sign of the Cross over her mouth. She was completely fluent within a year, and was translating for the Gerontissa by the time the next novice arrived. It’s very clear that after nearly 11 years, this life is a source of deep peace and joy for her.
Also while we were visiting the goats, Kh. Heather introduced me to Sister Ioanna, a sweet, friendly young nun that is always smiling. Kh. Heather put her arm around her and said, “I have known Sister Ioanna since she was a little girl, and she knew she wanted to become a nun by the time she was eight.” Kh. Miriam was present when she was tonsured (and the novices don’t know when they will be tonsured until it happens – it’s a total surprise), and she said that after she was tonsured, veiled, and given her new name, she couldn’t stop smiling. Years later, I’m not sure she ever has stopped smiling 🙂
Sister Macrina, a priest’s daughter, first came to visit and work with the nuns for a week or two, like many of the young girls in my church, when she was about 11. When she was there for another visit at the age of 14, she was supposed to leave just before the nuns departed to St. Anthony’s in Arizona. She called her mother and begged in tears to be allowed to go with the nuns to St. Anthony’s, with the Gerontissa’s blessing. Her mother decided to let her, and she planned to meet the nuns in Portland on their way back up and get her daughter then. Before they got to Portland, the mother got another tearful phone call from her daughter, who begged and begged to be able to go back to the monastery with the nuns. Her mother relented, and Sister Macrina has been there ever since. Because she was so young, she was not made an official novice for several years, but stayed clothed in blue (the Gerontissa has girls who want to become nuns first become a kind of sub-novice, and clothes them in a blue habit, usually for about a year before they become an official novice clothed in black. She also prefers that they don’t come until after they finish high school, but a few extremely determined girls have been exceptions. Sister Macrina finished high school by correspondence). Now, she is one of the most beautiful chanters at the monastery, and her chanting and Greek is so beautiful and confident, I though she might be one of the nuns that came from Greece. Like most of the nuns, she didn’t know any Greek until she came to the monastery.
I’m still a little afraid of Gerontissa (abbess) Efpraxia. I’ve never gone to speak with her. I go up to get her blessing at the beginning of every service, but that’s about the extent of it. But I know the nuns love her, and a huge amount of people from all around Washington and the Northwest revere her and go to her for advice and direction regularly. She is the person the other abbesses all over the country call for advice. I was asking Kh. Miriam why all these young women have come here of all places, to a monastery where the first thing they have to do is learn a whole new language, and Kh. Miriam just shrugged and said, “It’s the Gerontissa, she’s wonderful. She is simply a very holy woman, who knows the human soul.” She went on to tell me story after story of people coming to the Gerontissa, and her praying and guiding people through the hardest situations. There are many stories of barren women coming to her and asking for her prayers. Kh. Miriam told of one woman she knows who came to the Gerontissa for just that reason one Dormition. The Gerontissa is very humble, and said, “I will pray, and you will pray too, and together, we will wait and see what God does.” The woman came the following Dormition to introduce her baby to the Gerontissa.
The monastery also has a dry creekbed that runs behind the monastery. The chapel is in the lower level of the building, with the nuns quarters above it. This creek flooded each year, and sometimes the water got dangerously close to the chapel. One year, there was a serious rainstrom, and the water kept rising and rising, with no sign of abating. The Gerontissa is older, with bad arthritis, and is not supposed to be outside too long because of it. But the water kept rising. So the Gerontissa went out with an icon of the Theotokos, and held it there and prayed all night long. By dawn, the water has begun to recede, and soon was back down to its normal level. That was years ago, and the creek has not flooded again since. My roommate was a mother of three, soon to be four, and she often comes to the Gerontissa for advice in childrearing. Her mother in law thinks this is silly, and asked her, “Why on earth would you ask a nun about raising children? What could she possible know about children?” This woman replied, “She doesn’t have children, but she knows the depths of the human soul.” I think I may need to get over my fear and go speak to her next time.