I have been trying to think of what to write about my pilgrimage to the monastery. There are things that are very hard to put into words. I'm going to give a basic account of what my days consisted of. (Leaving out some bits of information that are a little too private for the unfettered internet. If you want to ask me about it I'd be happy to talk to you in person.)
My drive up was a series of wind, traffic, rain, and hail. When I arrived at the monastery I was surprised to learn that I had beat the storm (by hours) and instead of rushing to the guest house trying to keep my things dry I gladly sat on the porch in the sun and listened to the birds and smelled the sister's amazing roses while I waited for my friends to arrive. I had arrived in the middle of Compline & Vespers, which I didn't know, and the whole property was empty and silent. There was something that originally stuck me as unreal about the place. Even the air was different. After some time, and some talk with friends, I realized it wasn't UNREAL, it was HYPER-REAL. This place was more real than anywhere else I had ever been before.
The guest house is laid out and organized like the world's greatest hostel. When Joanna arrived she took me into the church for the end of Vespers. The smell, of course, was intoxicating. The chanting was breathtaking. The language was Greek, which might have been a problem, but I will get to that in a moment. After vespers Sister Marina showed us to our room. Sister Marina is a tall pretty woman. As I typed pretty I realized that I would have described all the sisters as pretty, though they are all different shapes, sizes, and ages. I think the reason I feel compelled to describe them as pretty, or even beautiful, is because the love and humility they each have make it impossible to see them as anything else. People talk about inner beauty, this was so much inner beauty that it was spilling out of them.
Sister Marina is in charge of the guesthouse and she made sure we had food, pillows, clean sheets, and work. By Friday I was starting to listen hard for Sister Marina before meals so that I could go out and help her set the tables, otherwise she would do it so quickly and quietly it was almost like everything appeared there magically. I never felt tempted to just let her do it, which of course she wouldn't have minded, because the warmth of her thanks for even the smallest task (like filling a pitcher with tap water) was intoxicating. She tried to teach me a Greek phrase, which of course I can't transliterate, it is like thank you, but it literally means "you have lightened me". Her task is hospitality, and she is certainly up to it.
I tried to take a walk around the lower grounds at least once a day, it was just so pretty and so peaceful. Sometimes, especially if I was walking with Joanna who has been a regular at the Monastery for the last 15 years, a sister would stop and talk and we would be introduced. They would ask if I was Orthodox, and I would say "Not until July 30th" and each sister would say "Oh I will remember you in my prayers, especially on that day". Joanna says that having one of the sisters promise to pray for you is not like having someone else promise to pray for you, they mean it and they don't say it lightly. (Though they do say it often!!) One sister told us about the icons in the church and found us an akathist book in English to chant with a very special icon.
If you want to work, there is always work to do! On our first day we peeled garlic. There would have been too much for the punch bowl they gave us to put the peeled cloves in. Thankfully, the Greek men staying in the guesthouse while they did construction for the sisters kept coming through and eating garlic like peanuts. On Friday and Saturday we picked rose petals for jelly and helped Kyria Maria make wedding and baptism favors. Kyria Maria is a Greek woman whose family has designed wedding dresses, favors, candles, and the like for 3 or more generations. She is not a nun, but works at the monastery, and is a gifted artist. She has a way of upholding her perfectionist standards without hurting your feelings. (I now have it on good authority that I am not capable of wrapping candy covered almonds in tulle!) I thought I was crafty, but Kyria Maria is on a whole new level.
We talked with her for hours while we worked. She asked me about my background and I asked questions about Orthodox traditions. The conversations were slow, because her English is limited and my Greek is non-existent, but there was no rush.
Church was something else entirely. On Friday morning, Feast of the Nativity of the Forerunner, we went to Divine Liturgy at 3:30 in the morning. Of all the services we attended while we were there, this was my favorite. Partly, it was easier to keep up after Joanna was sweet enough to give me an early Chrismation gift, my very own prayer book in English. Partly it was ambiance. The church was lit only by oil lamps and candles. The sisters added a black veil to their habits in church. It didn't cover the face, but it cast a shadow. It made the sisters indistinguishable from one another. All you could see was a black shape and hands. It struck me as profound. These women found fulfillment, love, and joy in losing themselves to Christ's service. I pray that one day I can tame my passions and my desires are so simple and Godward.
Also on Friday I met the Father of the monastery, Fr. Mark. He is a Texan man who has been speaking mostly Greek for the last 20 years or so. It gives a very interesting quality to his big voice. He spoke to me about the importance of confession and absolution. He answered a question I had about iconography with a lesson in my inability to work out my salvation without the grace and love of Christ. And it was an AMAZING lesson! He told me there are a few monasteries near where I would be moving in Oregon and advised me to build a relationship with one.
On Saturday I met the Gerontissa, or Abbess, of the Monastery. (That is not a literal translation but an equivalent rank.) I had learned from Joanna that I was supposed to touch the ground in front of her and then kiss her left hand, but as a bent to touch the ground she embraced me and kissed my cheek. She wears love like a perfume. I keep thinking of it as a smell. It wasn't something I saw, though her eyes are kind and her smile is gentle. It's not her voice, though she has a beautiful voice whether she is speaking or singing. It's just something that I was aware of. You don't need her to look at you or speak to you to know that she loves you. In fact, you don't even have to meet her if you are willing to take my word for it that she loves you, even if she doesn't know you. She asked me about my conversion. She asked me about my husband. She told me that I should consider the monastery my home in the mountains. She also said I had to come back as often as I can until we move, and bring Brian with me. She ended our little chat by telling me that not only were there a few monasteries on the wets coast, but in fact their sister monastery was in Yakima, Washington and that I should go there as soon as I could and they would welcome me.
One of the more poignant moments was the last interaction I had before we drove off. Kyria Maria said in her broken English, "You must come back before you move so that we can go to Holy Communion together, we will be together." I almost cried.
I was changed for the better, and I am trying to make sure that I don't let it wear off. I don't know if I communicated any of this well, but there it is. It was good for me to work out for myself. I hope it is helpful for someone who reads it.
O Lady, Thou dost help us held fast by a storm of many afflictions: for Thou dost stand before the altar of the Lord, lifting Thine hands and praying that the Lord of glory look down on our unworthy prayer and hearken to the petitions of those who call upon Thy holy Name crying to Thy Son:Alleluia!
Kontakion 4 - Akathist to the Holy Protection of the Theotokos