Despina: First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with the readers of the St. Nina Quarterly. The question which always comes to mind is how did you choose the monastic life?
Mother Raphaela: I chose the monastic life because I saw it as a challenge. I think because I had a Protestant background, and because of everything that one popularly learns about nuns, I figured that they had to be fairly strange people. But I met a nun when I went to college and she was one of the most normal, together persons I√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢d ever met. It simply blew away my stereotypes. How could she live that way and still be normal? Some people climb Mt. Everest, some try to go to the North Pole. My decision to become a nun was sort of like pushing the limits of humanity. How can you live that way. . . I also had a very definite sense of being called by the Lord and that was certainly part of it. I had a choice and I could have said √¢‚Ç¨Àúno√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢, knowing what was going to be required of me. I think that is where a real Christian vocation begins. You have a sense that it is bigger than you, that it is something you will be given the chance to grow into. It is not just something you dream about; you decide that this is what you would like to do with your life.
D.: What attracted you to the Orthodox Church?
M.R.: What brought me to the Orthodox Church. . . . Well, as an Episcopal nun, I was just increasingly caught up in an atmosphere that had become beleaguering, full of anger. We were fighting among ourselves so much. It seems to me that that our biggest strength as Christians is to be able to work with one another to bring the world to Christ. Not that we are never going to be angry and fight, because obviously the Lord√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s own band of twelve disagreed and fought, and betrayed. "God so loved the world" (John 3:16 ) (not just the Orthodox Church) and I really feel that we are here to try to in some way to lift up the whole of creation to God. And if we are constantly fighting among ourselves, how can we possibly reach out to others in love. I felt that all we were doing was fighting where I was. One thing led to another, and basically, I think it came down to a theological point for me: was I in the Church or was I in an organization. I don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t think you could say it was any one issue that led me out. It was simply discovering that there was an Orthodox Church.
It has taken time, but I think that what really struck me about the Orthodox Church is its openness to Truth, and not taking the view that any one person could be infallible, from the Pope on down, something that I would have had trouble with. In terms of conciliarity, obviously the Orthodox Church is at its best. I think, coming as an outsider, what I saw in the Orthodox Church was yes, petty divisions and squabbles, but not about the things that really count. There may be fights about how to make baklava, or will it be pirogi or baklava that will be featured at the festival. They will fight over all kinds of things. But when it comes to the things are not negotiable - our belief in the Trinity, in the divinity of Christ, our understanding of the role of the Theotokos - they will definitely close ranks. So I can handle all the other stuff. Because in the Episcopal Church, even the essentials of the faith were negotiable. . . .
When Metropolitan Theodosius was elected, he sent me to France to stay with the nuns at Bussey [Monastery of the Veil of Our Lady in Bussey-en-Othe, France] to get "scrubbed up." I am very grateful for that. They have been a tremendous support to us and have given us some very, very good advice. The main advice that Mother Theodosia (who was then the acting Abbess) gave was that we ought not to just try to mimic either a Russian or a Greek monastery, because we were Americans. I had already received thirteen years of training in monasticism. The most important thing was to stay put and to live and to grow into something that would be authentically American.
D.: When people make comparisons between monasticism and parish life, they often say that it is the same and it is different. Would you comment on that?
M.R.: The only difference for the monastic (monachos: one who lives alone) is that we are not married. For instance, at the New Testament Church in Jerusalem they held all things in common. Obedience. Everybody has got to have an obedience, even the Patriarch of Constantinople. The patriarchs have an obedience to the sobor [council or synod] as the Russians would say, and obedience to the people. They cannot simply run off on their own. I think everybody has to understand that. And it also has got to be, I would say, a personal obedience. I think we all need mentors, confessors. We do need to confess to one another. Normally there is one person who has been trained to be able to listen to confessions. There have been spiritual mothers, there have been...I√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢m more comfortable with the term mentor. I think we need this right now. I think that is something the people can understand. And anybody who feels that they have outgrown that is in trouble.
To be perfectly honest - this is one of the rules of thumb I was taught very early on and I think is very, very true - is that you do not take as a mentor someone who is not being mentored themselves, because they don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t know what it is about.
D.: This is basic psychological practice. Psychologists may counsel only if they themselves are being counseled.
M.R.: So said John Climacus. It is there. It is part of our Tradition.
D.: What are some of the challenges in trying to build a monastic community in this country?
M.R.: Well, first all, how do you support yourselves? I think the biggest challenge, (which comes first, the chicken or the egg?), is that our parishes are not fostering vocations. I√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢ve had many clergy members ask me why our monastery so small? And my response has become, "Father, who in your parish is being prepared for the monastic life?" Very, very few vocations are coming from parishes. Many are converts. I shouldn√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t say many, because there are still not that many Orthodox. Many are being brought from overseas. It will be interesting to see how it all works out. Ultimately, monasticism in this country needs to be American monasticism. Right now there is a tendency to import a foreign monasticism because of the idea that, somehow God is not able to work in America. Somehow, the work of the Holy Spirit comes here and crashes to a halt. Therefore we have to import a foreign model because it is the only way to have real monasticism. If the Lord was able to work in the first century, when they were all converts, He can certainly work with us. St. Pachomios is one of my great inspirations. He was a convert himself and many of his monks came in as catechumens. I think that is a model. It is just going to take some more time for our parishes. Gradually, people come and they see that there is monasticism. They see that it is not strange or just part of the ethnic identity they are trying to shed. I think it will take time and eventually our parishes will begin to produce monastics. I don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t see any quick growth, it if it is to be authentic.
D.: You√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢ve spoken of it taking three generations to establish a real, solid, working monastery. Do you think it might take another three generations before the parishes start to develop vocations?
M.R.: I think it is going to take time. Until our bishops are formed by monasticism again, and until we have some monasteries that bishops can come from, they won√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t know how to support monasticism. They are either scared to death of it, or they think, wonderful, some women to sew buttons on my cassock. I think what they are looking for is not monasticism, but the diaconate. I think we do need a service diaconate. I believe the western active orders that began at the time of the Counter Reformation - the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Sisters of Charity - were the result of an attempt to establish the diaconate in the west. I think it is very much needed now, because ultimately, the root of the monastic vocation is to give our lives to God. Whatever He sends our way we try to deal with. So monastics have taken on all kinds of things, including the diaconate, at times. But I think the root of the monastic vocation - if you go back to the desert fathers, back to Pachomios, and back to Cassian - is not the diaconate. I think monastics began to take that on the role only as the diaconate died out. When it becomes politically correct, I would like, eventually, to have one of us ordained to the diaconate, simply because there are times when we need the sacraments and a priest or deacon is not available. We are a very isolated monastery. There was one time when we all had the flu - we were sick as dogs - and nobody could get to a church. We went for six weeks without the sacraments because there was nobody available to come to us. If one of the sisters had been a deaconess, we could at least have received communion. Men√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s monasteries don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t have this problem because one among their numbers will be a priest. On the other hand, they tend to be much more closed, because of that. We have to be open by necessity. I think it is very healthy for women√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s monasteries to have to be open.
D.: What draws pilgrims to Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery?
M.R.: We have two pilgrimages a year, but we are not trying to be a big center for Orthodoxy. We are here because we believe God has called us to live our lives here, and that includes solitude and prayer. We are not trying to be the sort of place where busloads of people come every day. We are a different kind of family, but we are a family. What draws pilgrims. . . I think that the people who do come here are people who want to grow in their own lives. The people who come back regularly are people who find something here that they need in their own lives. We are just ourselves.
D.: What counsel would you give to a woman contemplating the monastic life?
M.R.: That is a very difficult question, because I have learned that every single woman who comes or is thinking about the life or doesn√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t know she is thinking about the life but is brought here for who knows why, is different. And there are no recipes. I would say the most important thing is simply to work on growing before God, and I use those words very advisedly. It is not just becoming more "pious" in a way that means that a woman comes here woefully unprepared to give her whole life to God: she has her little church life, and the rest of it she doesn√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t consider good enough or holy and sacred, and she tries to bring in just that part of herself. But you can√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t live twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year with the same women and just bring in a little part of yourself. It doesn√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t work. The other parts are always there. I would just try to live as normally as you can before God. The monastic life is living with other people and working hard. I would say try to live as balanced and as whole a life as you can. If you are trying to be somebody other than yourself, if you are trying to deny who you are, you are not going to make a good nun, because a good nun is somebody who is facing the whole of who she is before God, with all of her gifts and all of her limitations.
Some people look at the monastic life and ask themselves how can they possibly squeeze themselves into that small space. But the true monastic vocation is getting rid of the limitations you have placed on yourself and is actually a much broader environment than the world, something that people don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t realize. I think every sister here has had the same experience I did coming into the life - I don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t want to be quite that big, I don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t want to grow that much, I don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t want to be that large. And it is not an escape. We don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t have the escapes that most people have in the world, without even realizing it. If I√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢ve had it with my sisters, I can√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t just hop in the car and go see a movie. I can√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t "veg" out in front of the television. We√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢ve taken solitaire off the computers. We don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t play games here. There are a lot of escapes that we don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t have. We have had women come here who after twenty-four hours just have to leave. They can√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t handle it. It is too scary. It takes a physically and mentally healthy woman. We are all slightly neurotic; everyone is. But there has to be a basic health in order to survive here.
So, I think the main thing to say to a woman is to grow just as best as you can, and if you think you√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢ve got a calling, visit monasteries. It is a lot of work but a lot of fun.
D.: What do you see as important issues/concerns of women in the Church today?
M.R.: To just be themselves. I don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t think, personally, having come of age in the early 60√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s when demonstrations and rebellion was the way to go, I don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t think that is the way to go. It is violence. It doesn√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t change anything. We can see the Russian Revolution, what did it do? It destroyed everything. I think that working on ourselves, doing what we can, but that also means not being doormats. I think we do have the freedom, the inner freedom - and again, this means working on ourselves - to be able to speak the truth in love, to do what we can do, to make friends of some of the men who balk at us and discover that they, too, are God√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s creatures.
I don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t see that women have any issues that men don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t have, I really don√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t. And I think that the sooner we stop thinking in terms of "us" and "them" and camps, and being beleaguered, after all, some men have been tremendous helps to me and so have some women. If you are not willing to work with whoever God puts in your life, then I would suggest that you are not really accepting who you are before God. God puts men and women in our lives equally, at least as far as I√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢ve been able to see. So I think, radically, it gets down to a question of God, and what does He want, and are we truly willing to open ourselves to Him in prayer, stand before Him and then accept what He says. As long as we are trying to keep hold of it, it isn√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢t going to work. Apart from God we are nothing. If you accept that, then I think everything else becomes simple.
D.: Mother Raphaela, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
For further information contact:
Community of the Holy Myrrhbearers
144 Bert Washburn Rd.
Otego , NY 13825-2265