An Interview with Mother Abbess Christophora

Twenty-five years as abbess (2012)

Mother Christophora with our Archbishop Nathaniel

Twenty five years ago Mother Christophora was elected and installed as abbess of our monastery. We asked Matushka Valerie Zahirsky to interview Mother about these years. We present the interview in two parts as published in our "Life Transfigured" publication Volume 44 #2 and #3. 

Part 1

Matushka Valerie Zahirsky:  Mother, you worked as a counselor before you entered monastic life. Please describe that work.

Mother Christophora:  I always had the inclination towards work in the church.  That was always my favorite thing to do: be in church or work in church.  But, as a female, there were not a lot of paying opportunities for that.  So I went to college and I happened to study psychology—in the early 1970s a rather popular major.  When I got out, I was hired as an addictions counselor, helping people struggling with alcohol addictions.

I stayed in that field the eight years that I worked, but I did not grow up thinking I really wanted to be a counselor.  Not at all.  Probably it would have been easier for me to major in math or science, but I did not really see myself sitting at a desk all my life doing something like that.  Besides doing the counseling, I also did a lot of administrative work. I think that this helped prepare me for becoming the leader of the monastery, because all sorts of things fall to us here.

We leave the world, but one foot, in a sense, is forced to live in the world, because we have to administer the monastery in the world.  So any experience that we have in life before we come—I always say that God is a good economist—He really multiplies any talents or experience we come with.  So I think that my experience in counseling did help me perhaps understand people and some of the struggles people have, and then my experience in administrative work got applied here in some of the responsibilities that I have.

Mat. Valerie:  So you were feeling that pull to monasticism when you were working as a counselor?

Mother Christophora:  Yes, although I did not really know monasticism.  I would say I felt a pull to dedicate my life to the Church, but I never visited a women's monastery.  I was familiar with the men's monastery, St. Tikhon's.  As a teenager I went there, but never really visited a women's monastery until...the last position I had was to work for the state of Pennsylvania, and for my job I had to come to Lawrence County.  And I knew the Ellwood City monastery was in that county.  On one of those working trips, I visited here.  It was really like falling in love.  I was only here two or three hours that first visit.  Afterwards I could think of nothing else except how to get back as soon as possible.  I think God used my necessity of traveling to this area so that I would visit and walk over the doorstep and never turn back.

Mat. Valerie:  How old were you then?

Mother Christophora:  I was 27 when I first visited.  I continued visiting for two years.  Pretty much almost every month I would spend four or five days here.  I could not imagine joining the monastery and staying here forever.  That was a big step.  So it was okay to do four or five days and then go back to the world and my life and my independence, but thinking about staying here permanently?  That took a lot of thought, a lot of pondering.  That is a little bit outside of our experience as Americans.  We are raised to be very independent, very self-sufficient.  So joining a group of women and staying and living with them 24/7?  I was not quite ready for that, but after two and a half years of visiting, I did join. I was 29 when I entered.

Mat. Valerie:  Are there life experiences you regret having missed as you came fairly young like that?

Mother Christophora:  I am glad that I did get a formal education, and I am glad that I did work for a while and had the experience of living alone.  I was never married, and sometimes monastics may regret that, because being married and having children is a normal expectation. On the other hand I would say that I could never imagine being happier than I am.  Monastic life is so wonderful for those of us called to it that I think if more people knew what a wonderful life it is and how beautiful it is, we would have a lot more monastics. For so many people it is such a far-fetched idea that they would not dream to try this life.

Mat. Valerie:  Let's talk a little bit now about you as an abbess, because this August it will be 25 years since your elevation.  You were young when you were elected—how was that for you?

Mother Christophora:  I was 33, but when you are 33, you feel mature, so I probably did not know how young I was.  So I had a fair amount of enthusiasm and confidence, I would say, to take up that cross.  But it was extremely awkward because all the nuns in the monastery—there were about a dozen of us then—were older than I except for one who was my age.  Well, that's kind of strange, because one of the practices we have, of course, in the monastery is we ask a blessing for things, which also means kissing the abbess' hand.  Culturally, that is a little strange for Americans; first of all, we have to get used just to doing that.  When it is women older than you or who have lived the monastic life longer than you who are kissing your hand, it feels strange.

It felt strange for me, but I imagine it felt even more so for them.  They had to really humble themselves and really accept that this young woman—the monastery is in her hands now, and she does not have a lot of experience and she does not have a lot of years.  Though it was awkward, I think I had the grace of God and the prayers of so many people and the saints that I could take up this cross, but I had to really be tried by fire.

You only get experience from experience, so when a young man is ordained a priest, we have high hopes.  They are sent to a parish, and they make mistakes.  If a young priest is consecrated a bishop, we have high hopes, and we think, “This man is really going to do a great job.”  The first thing he does is make mistakes.  So, too, I think a young woman being elected abbess, she will make some mistakes, but this is how we gain experience, and this is how we mature and grow.  So thank God that the nuns stuck with me and stayed, although some did leave.  But we grow together, and I think there is a maturation that comes through trial, error, through falling and getting up.  And we go on.

However when I traveled to Europe—I went to Greece and Romania—not too long after I was elected abbess, I was surprised to find that even in those countries, when the older abbess retired or died, they had a tendency to elect somebody quite young. They thought that, being young, she would have more years to mature in the role and have more years to serve.  So they did not necessarily elect somebody who was next-in-line or who had been there a long time.  That was encouraging to find, that I was not the only young abbess in the world.

Mat. Valerie:  How did that experience of visiting venerable monasteries overseas, being in those kinds of places, affect you?

Mother Christophora:  Since our culture as well as our Orthodox Church in America is very young, only a couple of hundred years old, it is unbelievable first of all just to be in Europe, centuries older. While having a tour of a monastery, standing in a church, they may say, “This was built in the seventh century,” or the fourteenth century—Americans do not think in those terms, at all.

I remember visiting Romania in the early 1990s, and on one monastery tour I saw a bronze plaque on the wall that had the names of each abbess, and her successor, and the years of her service.  It is as long as my arm!  I thought, “Oh my gosh!  These people have been doing this for so many years.”  They have nothing to decide when they are the next abbess, because the monastery’s tradition is in place, the gears are moving.  In America, almost every day we are challenged: how will we apply the monastic tradition here, in this country, to this culture?  Our monastery is 45 years old.  That makes it an old monastery in America, but still a total infant in terms of Orthodoxy.  We are still in a period of founding our monastery, always discerning, asking if we are remaining true to ancient monastic principles.

Another impression visiting monasteries that have been there for hundreds of years, is to see that there is a real naturalness among the monks and nuns in those countries.  Again, as Americans, we are sort of an insecure people in the sense of “Are we doing it right?” even if it is in a parish:  “This is how we do it at my parish, but another parish does it that way.  Does that mean we are wrong?  Do we have to start correcting it?  Do we have to have this service at this time—doing maybe this or that? How do we do this?”  So we have this kind of insecurity and we think, “This must not be real Orthodoxy if we are not doing everything that they do over in that monastery, over in that parish.”

In Europe, one of the refreshing things that we have noticed when we have traveled—we always travel two or three sisters at a time on a trip like that—they are just so natural.  They are not so insecure, always looking at the neighbor.  The nuns there are very simple, very happy in life.  The monastic life is just life, and that is what we have to strive to find.  If somebody comes here and says, “Oh, the nuns are so normal!”  I always say, “That is the biggest compliment you can give us.”  Jesus Christ, being truly human, was normal—in a healthy way.  And that is how we would like to be.  Emotionally and spiritually, we get a little “Oh, is this or that right?  How many times do we have to do this?  How far do you bow when you bow?”  So it was refreshing to see their monastic life lived simply and so naturally.

Another thing I would say from visiting there is you can also find out how American you are.  You do not know this until you are not in America.  Then you just realize about this culture—we really are different.  There is no right or wrong.  I think we have to really appreciate our own culture and our American heritage.  We do have a wonderful country, and a wonderful history.

Mother Alexandra was a Romanian princess, part of a royal family that has a centuries-long history.  After she had to leave her country, she raised her children and then got to fulfill her dream to become a nun. She was living in America but she went to France to become a nun. She saw our country was very rich materially but very poor spiritually, and she wanted America to have an Orthodox monastery.  This was her gift; this was what she did.  She gave America an Orthodox monastery, because she knew that it would add to life here.  But she did not give America a Romanian Orthodox monastery or a Russian Orthodox monastery or a Greek Orthodox monastery.  She gave America an Orthodox monastery for Americans.

In the 1960s when very little English was used in Orthodox churches, she was determined that everything would be in English from day one, that American women of all backgrounds would feel welcome here.  I think her dream is being realized and has been realized. She saw that you do not have to be—and we all know this, but it still bears repeating—Greek or Russian or Ukrainian or Serbian to be Orthodox.  America needs Orthodoxy.  She knew that.  We can also, as Americans, be comfortable in the Orthodox Church in our own way.  Here we have enjoyed discovering that—like watching petals of a flower open as we live out our monastic life as Americans in this Orthodox monastery.

Mat. Valerie:  Do you have a favorite meal here at the monastery?  I know you have very good meals.

Mother Christophora:  I would have to say the Divine Liturgy.  In Lent, we receive communion four times a week, and the rest of the year we usually have the Liturgy three days a week.  I love food, and I am always thinking about food, so do not think I am that spiritual.  But because you asked me for one meal, I would have to say it is the Liturgy, where we all come together and share in that chalice.  I think that makes the biggest difference in our life.  It does not make us alike.  We are not at all alike, but hopefully we are unified.  We are so different, one from another, for ten women.  So different.

But I hope it unifies us, and I hope it unites us, and I hope the Holy Eucharist helps us grow.  And I believe it does, because I do not have a particular gift for spiritual direction or of spiritual teaching—it is just not my favorite thing to do—but I have watched the sisters grow.  How does this happen?  They are growing by staying, first of all, in the monastery, not leaving, going to church every day.  Because something is going to happen.  The Holy Spirit is there.  Everything we sing is inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Daily we are singing the theology, but then, three or four days a week, to receive the Body and Blood of Christ—hopefully we receive it in humility—that, that will help us grow.

As time passes, I increasingly think that is one of the keys here.  I always tell the sisters, "Stay, because time is on our side; just stay.  Do not figure out if it is working.  Do not figure out if anything is getting better.  We do not ever know that.  We do not even have to figure that out; that is up to God.  But go to church, say your prayers, and receive the Eucharist."  I think that really makes a difference in our life.  It is so beautiful.

This morning we had a very quiet Liturgy—with just the nuns, the priest, and two laymen.  Such a gift.  I always say, “Our God is so humble.”  There are some days when maybe we are coughing or off-key, there is nobody but the priest and the nuns, or maybe it is a rainy, cloudy day—and God comes!  He lets us do this.  He lets us have the Liturgy, and receive His Body and Blood.  Wow.  Here we are, some Wednesday morning in Ellwood City, and we just touched heaven.

Mat. Valerie:  You mentioned leaving the world but still having one foot in it.  How do you answer those who object that monastics are cut off from real life? 

Mother Christophora:  I think that is a good question, and probably the one that people think more than they actually ask.  We get asked a lot of questions, but that is probably one that people try to answer themselves rather than asking us.

First of all, I would say that we are really connected to the world through prayer, that we pray for people.  The reason that we are here and doing prayers every day is not because it makes us feel good—actually, sometimes it tires us very much—but because the world really needs prayer.  People really depend on our prayers.  We get so many phone calls and emails with various requests for prayer, because people are so burdened, so worried, so sick, whatever.

So we have a little bulletin board back in our private living quarters where, as the phone calls and the emails come in, we post them, and then at the end of the day we bring the names to church and pray for them for weeks or longer.  Sometimes, reading the notes on the bulletin board, you just cannot believe, and some you just cannot even bear, the tragedies that people are suffering and struggling with.  So that really leaves us very connected, which is not in a small-talk, frivolous way, but really to people's needs

The reason most people come here to visit is to pray and to ask us to pray for them.  We meet, also, a lot of people who need a hug or need to talk to somebody or need to cry in front of somebody.  So we do hear a lot about people's tragedies and struggles.

I do not think this concern that we are cut off from the world is 100% off the track because, in some ways, we are.  For example, I do not have to get up in the morning, put on make-up, put on appropriate fancy clothes or whatever, get in the car, drive an hour to work, and do the work I do, which maybe I do not even like.  Those kinds of things, as a nun I do not have to do. I think it is a real, total miracle—a blessing from God—that we can live here and meet the expenses of a very large property including everything needed for ourselves as well as for the guests.  We do not have to leave the property, so we do not go out often.  I think that that is a real blessing that God grants us, because He said to His apostles, “Do not worry about what you are going to eat or what you are going to wear.  Seek first the kingdom of God.  Everything you need will be given to you.”

And He really keeps His promise, because that is exactly what we experience.  We do have what we need, even though we do not have to go out to work and get a salary.  Now, we work, of course; we have to do things all day long, like everybody, whatever it is, whether it is shopping or cooking or doing office work, answering the phone or writing or sewing or gardening.  There is always work to do; everybody has to keep busy.  Even St. Paul, a great preacher, had his profession.  But we do not usually have to do it off the property, in the stress of the world, on the highways or in traffic, as so many people do.  When I want to go to church, it takes me one minute to get there.  If I visit a parish or stay with my family or someone, I say, “Oh!  You've got to be up and in the car 45 minutes before the Liturgy starts because you have to drive.  And maybe you have to go down to the basement and set up the coffee.”

I have no reason to be absent from church, but people who have families have to load them in the car, drive them and deal with weather and other things.  Maybe it is an evening service and they want to go—it adds extra time to their day.  People might have left their home at six, six-thirty in the morning, finish their workday, get home, maybe change clothes, freshen up, go to Presanctified Liturgy at six or seven in the evening and finally get something to eat, and get home at nine or ten o'clock. That is a big sacrifice.  I find that extremely impressive and very much ascetical—an asceticism that I am not subject to.  I have other ascetic struggles, but we do have a little cushion here from some difficulties the laity goes through.

Another cushion—we live with other Orthodox Christians who believe the same thing, and the people who come here are mostly at least Christian or they are seeking.  During Lent, I go to the refectory to find a very nice, fasting meal prepared for me at lunchtime or dinnertime.  I do not have to smell hamburgers and pizza like kids who go to school.  I do not have to make choices or think, “Here I am with my peanut-butter and jelly again,” while other kids are having pepperoni pizza.  There is this kind of protection; there is a bit of truth to that.  I really want to say how much I respect the Orthodox people who are faithful, living in the world and participating in their parish and still dealing with all those things that I mentioned, whether it is traveling, jobs, work or other responsibilities.

We should not think that somehow monks and nuns are the Holy People.  People see us in our habits and say, “There are the Holy People.”  I think the holy people are the good, faithful Christians who raise their children, pay their bills, who go to work, support their parish, say their prayers, read their Bible, sing in the choir, and do all of that while still struggling in the world to meet all their expenses and even to keep their families happy.  God bless them all!


Part 2

Matushka Valerie Zahirsky:  At your monastery, you make a special outreach to children and young people, both through gatherings and through those special prayers that you offer.  Why do you have this focus?

Mother Christophora:  I think that it is such an honor for us to watch children grow up coming to a monastery, because this is kind of a new thing.  My generation did not grow up visiting monasteries as we did not yet have them in America.  Now many parents really want their children to be exposed to monasticism.  We have heard, “Oh, it is fine if our children decide to be a monk or a nun, we would be very honored.” However I always wonder, “Well, will that be true if their child actually does make such a decision?”  It is hard  for parents to let their kids enter a monastery. 

In the meantime, we nuns are blessed to see so many pious, dedicated families bring their children to familiarize them with this life.  We believe it is important to involve children as much as we can here, to have some hands-on experience.  We like to give them things to do in the church itself, whether it is putting out the candles or carrying a candle or whatever, because I think that a lot of times kids in a parish are going to be in the pew which is 20 or 30 or 40 feet back from the iconostas or the altar where things are happening.  Our church is small and intimate, and we like to give them that opportunity to really experience, up close and personal, the church and the liturgy. 

We enjoy sweet little kids saying cute things, but even more so, just watching them grow in the faith.  We hope that whatever experience they had here will always be part of them, and that they will always remember their visits to the monastery.

Mat. Valerie:  In terms of your own childhood now:  your brother is an Orthodox priest, you entered this monastic life, and your sister is a faithful laywoman.  What were some of the influences in your growing-up years that led you to such a strong commitment to the Church?

Mother Christophora:  I would say it is three things:  first, my own parents and their faithfulness—I do not want to really say “piety,” because I think sometimes that gives the impression of a lot of the external practices, but I would say their faithfulness and their total integrity and lack of hypocrisy.  I think my parents really lived the Christian life, but did not talk about it; they just lived it.  They did not preach to us or really do a lot of externals, but their life was what it was.  There was no hypocrisy; there were no lies.  They were good-hearted, and they helped people all the time.  They were just very sincere, very dedicated to the Church, totally dedicated to the Church.  That is the first  thing.

The second influence would be their own parents.  I was blessed to know my father's parents.  Though my mother's died before I was born, I always heard about their lives and what good people they were and how, again, serious they were and committed to God.  I think that really leaves a child with an impression, again without preaching, that this is what is important and this is how we live.  It is not like we woke up every morning and said, “Yep.  Be good people, because your grandparents were good.”  There was a real integrity there.

And then the third was, I think, the icing on the cake.  I grew up in a small parish in a small town.  We had a very dedicated priest and his wife at our parish, Fr. Yaroslav and Matushka Valerie Sudick.  They really involved the kids in everything, and helped us feel, I would say, proud of our Church.  I think when somebody is excited about the Church and her liturgical cycle and her teachings and her beauty, that that is like a spark that spreads through the congregation.  For me that spark of how to live a Christian life really ignited not only from my parents, but also with the Church and everything that the Church offers us.

Mat. Valerie:  You spoke about that bulletin board in your cloister where you post the requests you receive from people asking for prayers to help with the burdens and sorrows they carry [see last issue, ed.].  I have two questions here.  What helps you carry the burden, and what advice could you offer to those who might feel overwhelmed by the sorrows of people they love?

Mother Christophora:  When people get overwhelmed by life, I would say that something that is very helpful is to ask other people to pray for you.  Call the monasteries, write letters, send emails, all over the world, as well as to ask people in our parishes to pray for you.  And you will feel that that really does work, really does help you carry on.

As for the nuns, when illness strikes our own families, we have then an experience of how important prayer is.  We find ourselves on the receiving end of prayer.  We have to help our loved one, sometimes immediately, whether it is making phone calls, getting them to the doctor's, making arrangements and keeping a schedule, helping them with their diet, or even doing some research to see what they are dealing with.  When we are that close to someone who is ill, besides being very sad, there is just a lot to do.  There is not really a lot of time or energy to spend praying.

If I have to sit in a waiting room—which I have done often, with sisters who are having a test or surgery—I may wish to sit there and pray.  But I find waiting rooms a hard place to pray, a little distracting.  It is hard to pray when we are very close to the sick person.  So in those times, that reminds us how important it is that somebody is in the monastery and praying.  I often call the monastery and say, “The surgery has just started.”  Well, people call us like this all the time, and it means so much to know that the nuns will be praying and will go light a candle.

For us, reading our bulletin board several times a day, sometimes all the bad news and prayer requests are overwhelming.  There are times when all we can do is, as the Scripture says, pray with a sigh or in silence because the grief is too much even for words.  We can feel weighed down and just say, “Lord, have mercy.  How much these people are struggling, what crosses You are asking them to bear—how can they do it?  How can they bear those tragedies that strike them?”  We really do not know.

Mat. Valerie:  What are some of the specific responsibilities of the abbess?

Mother Christophora:  Through the eyes of children, it is a really great job.  If you watch them play monks and nuns, somebody has got to be the abbess.  That is one impressive role that everybody wants to play, because they get to go around telling everybody what to do.  That is their impression, and it is fun to see!

As in any family, if you are the parent, you have a lot of responsibilities.  My role is very practical.  There is the material side: that we have enough money to pay the bills to keep the buildings warm and lights on, that we have food, and that the sisters have what they need in terms of their medical needs or clothing and food and, obviously, a place to sleep.

There is also a responsibility for the spiritual side of our life: to have a priest to serve the Liturgies, and also a priest to whom we can go for confession and who can give us some guidance and instruction—whether formal classes or studying the Fathers or Scripture from time to time in little mini-units.  I have to make sure that the sisters have an opportunity to talk to me if they have something bothering them or some help they may need.  Sometimes they might need to go to a professional counselor for such help, or to a doctor when they have medical issues.  It is important to take care of our health because we need to be healthy to work and keep up the schedule, also the food has to be nutritious.

Basically, my role is to oversee that all the material needs are met and the spiritual needs are met.  I do not have to meet them all; I do not have to go grocery shopping or to cook any longer—that is a sister’s job.  Mine is to make sure that some sister is buying the food and somebody is preparing it.  I do not have to give spiritual guidance to everyone.  I am the spiritual mother of the sisterhood, but if she has a particular question that I cannot help her with, I make sure somebody else can help her. That is what I provide for them—organizing our lives and who does what.  I assign all the work that needs to be done—make sure it is someone's responsibility.

Mat. Valerie:  This is somewhat related: most of your nuns did not come here when they were young, but they have gone to college, they have had careers, or they have been married.  How has this affected the way you govern the monastery?

Mother Christophora:  Our monastery historically seems to attract mature women, women who have had some life experience.  We have had a couple who have come at age 18, right after high school, but most of us came after we had received an education and worked for a while.

When young women first leave home—for Americans, usually that means “go to college”—isn't that quite an interesting time in their lives?  Maybe we have to get used to not asking our parents for advice on every decision.  Maybe we enjoy that independence, but we make some mistakes.  There is a maturing that goes on in those five or ten years after high school. It is better to be over with that before you come to the monastery.  Not that I would not want the young person—I would be happy to receive her—but it is not bad that those things have gotten taken care of before they come, because when it comes to this monastery, there is a lot expected of us.

We actually have a lot of freedom in how we do our work and when we do our work and how we arrange our life through the day and the evenings.  We have free time in the evening here, and if you have a community of a number of very young women, you cannot give them that much free time, because it will do them in.  They just will not know what to do with it or maybe do not even want it, they have so much energy.  As we get a little older, we are happy to have a free evening, but when you are young you want to do things.  It has worked well for us that we seem to attract women who are a little bit more mature, because our expectation is that she would be able to handle a lot of responsibilities.  I have said that we have a fair amount of freedom here, but with that freedom comes a lot of responsibility.

I expect, if I give you an obedience to answer the door, whoever might drive up today and ring the doorbell, you have to greet them, you have to be able to speak to them, take them into the church, give them a tour, speak to them about Orthodoxy—if they are just dropping by, they might not even be Orthodox—speak to them about our life, show them around, and be appropriate in all of that.  That takes a lot of maturity, but also the sister can realize, “Wow, this is my thing.  This is what God asked me to do here.”  So she can grow in that role.  I have really enjoyed, as abbess, seeing each of them grow in their responsibilities.

One of our nuns is the treasurer.  When she first came and was given this obedience, mostly she was paying bills and writing checks, and she had to learn how to do monthly reports and, of course, balance the checkbook.  Now she does a lot more, she has to know a lot about investments, has had to learn to do the accounting using a computer program, and all kinds of other things such as payroll taxes.  So she has really grown in that role, and for me, that is a total help, because I trust that the bills will be paid, that we will not go into some kind of bankruptcy or bounce checks.   It is a big load off my shoulder.

Likewise with all the other work the sisters do.  We have always sung in church, but we did not have anybody who had any musical background. A young woman joined us a few years ago.  Music was not her major—she was actually an engineer—but she came from a musical family and played instruments through her elementary, high school, and college years.  I gave her right from the start the obedience of the choir.  Well, she has really improved our singing, because she has those talents.  Whatever talents or gifts we come with, God multiplies them.

I really enjoy watching everyone mature.  I tell the sisters that time is on our side: if we stay in the monastery long enough, things will happen, and we will grow.  Just as a tree has to stay planted in order to mature and grow its roots deep down, so does staying put in our life, offering what God has given us.  You do not see your children grow each morning; you only notice that your son's pants come up short, but you have not really seen him get taller.  So, too, in spiritual ways, we do not see that, but we can look back and we can look from a distance at someone and say they have really matured.  So we have got to stay put. Pray, do our work and God will bring the growth to us as persons, and also will make the monastery that much more stable and rooted.

Mat. Valerie:  The community life: what parts of monastic life are the way you thought they would be, and what parts are not?

Mother Christophora:  I thought that people in monasteries would have nice church services and like going to them, and I have found this to be true. 

As for the second part of your question, I expected that living with other women so intimately, 24 hours a day, would just be awful, because I was never one to be a kind of groupie.  I liked being alone, being single, being independent.  Joining a monastery, a sisterhood, was a big step, but I have come to really love it.  In a sense, that is the surprise: how much I have gotten used to living with other people.

As I have aged and grown older here, I have appreciated that other people are here to support me when I need to be held up, when I am sad, when I am ill.  We are not alone.  I have observed the single life, and I think, “Wow, that is fun when you are 20 or 30, but as you get to be 50, 60, 70, and you are alone in the world, it is awful to have no support system around you.”  People that get married have, just naturally, your children, your spouse, some extended family.

In the monastery, we have a family here, we have each other.  In the Christian community, whether it be the community of marriage or the monastic community, there is a lot of support for each other, and it is wonderful.  It is when we are isolated and alone that it is very, very hard.  The surprise, I guess, would be that I have come to appreciate community life when I thought it would just be “Well, that is just the way it is.  I will just have to deal with that.  It will not be nice,” but it is nice.

Mat. Valerie:  We can imagine you all work in one kitchen.    How do you work that out?  How do those things work?

Mother Christophora:  I think in a parish that kind of sharing can be a real challenge.  However in coming to a monastery, we really have to know that some parts of us are going to have to change.  Some rough edges are going to have to be rubbed off.  There are going to be times where we are going to have to do something we do not want to do.  That is a given for being in the monastic life.  We call it “cutting our will,” giving up our own desires.  It is so much a part of our life throughout the monastery that it should not be that hard to apply in particular in the kitchen—I hope that all the struggles are not just in that room.

Still, the kitchen is probably the biggest hothouse, the most difficult area of the obediences.  We rub elbows there more than other places, having more often to defer to other people's wishes and other ways of doing things, and that keeps us humble.  But we do not put all the nuns in the kitchen at the same time.  After we eat, a good number of sisters go and clean up, but while we are cooking, it is usually just two sisters who are doing the work—unless it is a big feast day, and then we are all in there.

Mat. Valerie:  I think we should ask this: what advice would you give to a woman who might feel called to the monastic life?

Mother Christophora:  Follow your calling!  Come and see.  Visit.  Try it.  Make visits.  Do not ignore it, because it is a wonderful way of life.  You will be surprised.  Now, if you think you want to be a nun but are married and have small children and other commitments--that is probably a temptation, not a calling.  But if you are single and in a position to come, then I would say: Come and see!

 

Our special thanks to Ancient Faith Radio 
for providing a transcript of this interview.
www.ancientfaith.com