Tag Archives: monasteries

Spring Zoë

When the sun was just rising above the groves I drove away from my sister’s house and about an hour north to visit the Monastery of the Theotokos the Life-Giving Spring, which is nestled in the foothills at about 2,000 ft. elevation. It was Sunday morning and I wanted to attend Divine Liturgy there; the service was starting at 8:30.

Christ’s mother Mary is called the Life-Giving Spring because of course Christ is Himself the Water of Life. Just as the name of our first mother Eve means life in Hebrew, Zoë means life in Greek. There is an icon associated with this name of the Theotokos, and a feast day on the Friday following Pascha.

It was a beautiful drive, especially as the road climbed very gradually into green hills scattered with large patches of lupines and poppies. This year California’s Central Valley received more rain than usual, and the landscape is still gentle and lush everywhere. Many of the plants that will eventually be stickers and thorns are still pretty wildflowers.

I had reserved a room for the night at St. Nicholas Ranch retreat center just next to the monastery, and I parked my car there and walked through the gates and up the hill to the monastery itself. I had never visited here before, and didn’t know that this little hike would right away give me the opportunity to take pictures of wildflowers. 🙂

Then I entered the courtyard of the church, through a hall lined with mural icons of saints, in process of being painted; once I saw two of the sisters painting when I passed through. The courtyard has four planters with walls on which one can sit. They are filled with many ornamentals, but especially palms and bugleweed, a species of ajuga, which right now is in full bloom, its blue spikes standing boldly up from the mat of green leaves.

On my drive to the monastery I am sorry to say I had wasted time in my too-frequent mental lament over the unsightly palm trees that dot the landscape in the warmer areas of the state. Of course in their essence they are not ugly, but the way they have been used makes them appear that way. I think sometimes it is because they aren’t incorporated into any symmetry; or they stick up in an ungainly way out of context of their setting (for example, in Northern California where I live, and where conifers naturally and more healthily grow), often as a solitary botanical oddity. The majority are also not maintained and many have more dead fronds than living ones.

Here at the monastery I was given a huge gift, in encountering palm trees in all their glory. Many species of palms have been incorporated into the landscaping, and someone obviously gave thought to how to arrange them in the most beautiful way. Gardeners care for them and trim the dead fronds. My feeling about them has forever been altered, now that I’ve seen palm trees as they certainly were meant to be.

On one side of the courtyard is the church, where I spent the next couple of hours settling my spirit that had been jangled by all the activity of getting there. What a magnificent temple! The nuns’ singing transported me to heaven, by way of Greece. The whole service was in Greek, though the Gospel was read in English also. At least 50 other visitors were there with me, including several families with young children; I heard that they come from all over the world, and I personally met people from British Columbia, and from various points in California that are several hours away. I had words with a monk who I think  was from Greece, judging from what he said to a question, “I don’t know, I don’t speak English,” and from how another person translated for him so he could answer me.

After the service we walked across the courtyard to the dining room where dozens of visitors ate lunch provided by the sisters. It was the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, and the story of her life was read to us from a perch high on the wall above, as we ate in silence in the trapeza style of Orthodox monasteries. We filed back into church to complete our meal with prayers, and then thick and sweet Greek coffee was served in the courtyard.

After a little coffee and cookies and socializing, we were invited to another room to hear a talk from (Korean) Father Gregory on St. Mary of Egypt, in English. It was very encouraging! Her life and example of repentance illustrate spiritual truths that I have been hearing from every direction in the last couple of weeks, and which I hope to consider altogether and write about later.

I shopped in the bookstore and bought a little icon of St. Porphyrios, who has blessed me so much this Lent through the book I’ve mentioned here, Wounded by Love. And then I returned to my room for a rest before Vespers which was to be at 3:00. The next string of pictures starts with a view of the monastery from just outside the window of my room, and includes scenes from a stroll around the property that evening.

It was a deep and quiet sleep I fell into that night after spending the last Sunday of Lent at this special place. I skipped the morning service that was to be at 3:00, and walked up the hill again for for a lovely breakfast, which I shared with only two other women, as most of the visitors had departed the day before.

I want to tell you about the hearty breakfast menu: On the table waiting for us was a bowl of cut-up grapefruit; a dish of rice and white beans lightly flavored with tomato and other good tastes; oatmeal cooked with cashew milk and fruit – we thought dates and blueberries and maybe figs; cookies with molasses; good bread; peanut butter; and a bowl of walnuts in their shells.

Down the hill again, and I packed my car for the drive home, full to the brim of blessings from my oh so brief, introductory sort of pilgrimage to this holy place, and already imagining my return. But before I descended to the valley again I had one more stop to make, about which I will tell you in my next post.

Roses, a towel, and Isidora.

When you have washed the dishes and are letting the dirty water drain out of the sink, remember Saint Isidora, who is commemorated on May 10. Today I thought of her when I had occasion to wear a kitchen towel on my head; I have posted her story below.

isi cistus church 5-17
cistus at church

I had scheduled an oil change for my car this morning, and planned to drop it off at the mechanic early enough that I would have time to walk the mile to church, and join two other women to bake Orthodox communion bread called prosphora.

Because I was plotting about how long the walk would take me, what time to leave home, etc., I forgot to bring along the bandana I always wear to keep my hair out of the dough. When I arrived on the property I took some flower pictures and then hunted around for a substitute. I couldn’t find a spare scarf in the church or in the lost-and-found, but there was the stack of frayed but clean terrycloth kitchen towels in the corner of the kitchen, and a safety pin in a drawer… Ah, I thought: Isidora was known to wear a rag on her head, so I will do this in her honor.

Icon over the church hall porch

The following is from the website of the Orthodox Church in America:

Saint Isidora, Fool-for-Christ, struggled in the Tabenna monastery in Egypt during the sixth century. Taking upon herself the feat of folly, she acted like one insane, and did not eat food with the other sisters of the monastery. Many of them regarded her with contempt, but Isidora bore all this with great patience and meekness, blessing God for everything.

She worked in the kitchen and fulfilled the dirtiest, most difficult tasks at thisidora-of-egypt-frescoe monastery, cleaning the monastery of every impurity. Isidora covered her head with a plain rag, and instead of cooked food she drank the dirty wash water from the pots and dishes. She never became angry, never insulted anyone with a word, never grumbled against God or the sisters, and was given to silence.

Once, a desert monk, Saint Pitirim, had a vision. An angel of God appeared to him and said, “Go to the Tabenna monastery. There you will see a sister wearing a rag on her head. She serves them all with love, and endures their contempt without complaint. Her heart and her thoughts rest always with God. You, on the other hand, sit in solitude, but your thoughts flit about all over the world.”

The Elder set out for the Tabenna monastery, but he did not see the one indicated to him in the vision among the sisters. Then they led Isidora to him, considering her a demoniac. Isidora fell down at the knees of the Elder, asking his blessing. Saint Pitirim bowed down to the ground to her and said, “Bless me first, venerable Mother!”

To the astonished questions of the sisters the Elder replied, “Before God, Isidora is higher than all of us!” Then the sisters began to repent, confessing their mistreatment of Isidora, and they asked her forgiveness. The saint, however, distressed over her fame, secretly hid herself away from the monastery, and her ultimate fate remained unknown. It is believed that she died around the year 365.

I have seen this icon for years in the church, but only recently did I get a good enough photo to think about putting up here, and then I read about Isidora just a few weeks ago, close enough to her feast day that I waited to share it now. But who knew that I would so conveniently find another connection to the saint? My fellow bakers smiled at my enthusiasm and immediately asked, “What’s for dinner tonight?”

Every branch He prunes.

I traveled over the hill to the nearby monastery one morning last week and pruned roses for three hours. The sisters who came to this place inherited a big garden next to the river, with many plantings they are learning to manage. Sister Xenia is the chief gardener, and she spends a lot of time on the job, but it’s not the only task she’s assigned, and she appreciates any help outsiders can give.

Frost had to be scraped off my car before I left home. It was still below freezing at that time, and I wore my denim skirt, leggings, work boots and a thick flannel shirt over one of my old turtlenecks. But after I’d arrived and started in with my clippers, it wasn’t long before a springtime breeze began to blow.

So many roses! And most of them are not in a location that is good for roses; they are in the shade too much. Each bush was a big challenge to my skill and art, presenting one or more problems including:

1) Too tall and leggy, with no buds down low that my pruning might channel the lifeblood to.

2) Too many large canes and branches crowding each other, so that I had to thin drastically, after deciding based on uncertain parameters which ones to remove.

3) Bushes growing too close to another type of shrub or tree, as in the case of the one pictured, where a Pittosporum has surrounded one tall rosebush.

4) Growing close to the path or over the sidewalk, catching on the sisters’ habits or poking passersby.

5) Dead wood

It really was a joy to have quiet time to focus completely on a project like this, and I needed every bit of my mental resources and powers of concentration to do the work. Also my imagination, as I tried to envision what effect my cuts would have on each bush in the next months and even years.

Afterward when I was driving home, I began to ask myself why I hadn’t prayed while working, and quickly realized that it had taken every bit of my attention and creativity to do the task set before me. Is it perhaps a little like restoring a painting that has been severely damaged… a little like designing a building that must be raised on top of living ruins?  I wonder that, having no real knowledge of those types of art.

One thing for certain, the glory of this art won’t show until after many weeks the plants produce the actual rose flowers. I have just decided that a visit to the monastery is necessary when that brilliance begins, because I’ve never even seen these bushes in bloom. In the meantime I’m posting some old rose photos from my own parish church grounds, to keep me happily anticipating warmer weather.

At about noon the nuns gather for the 6th Hour prayers, and when the bell rang the announcement I laid down my tools and joined them. There was my chance to pray and soak up the Spirit, and the spirit of the place, and to stand up straight for a while and breathe the incense.

I hadn’t pruned all the roses, but I ate lunch with the sisters and went home anyway, meditating on what made the experience so fatiguing. Does it cause God this much trouble to prune us, as the Bible says he does: “Every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. John 15:2” Does He say to Himself, “I did the best I could, under the circumstances.”? Maybe we grow all out of shape in odd ways, not getting enough of the Sun of Righteousness.

Speaking of sun, it had brought the temperature up to 79 degrees that afternoon. We are all aching for rain here in the West, as we suffer a terrible drought that makes it hard to enjoy those lovely warm rays. The drought is like a dark un-cloud looming behind the sun. Now that I am invested in a few dozen rosebushes, I am a little concerned that some of them might not make it through a water-rationed cycle of seasons to next January when I will try to get back and minister to them.

As we anticipate a possibly very long dry season, my motherly/sisterly feelings are reaching out to the plants and animals, and I’m praying more intently in Divine Liturgy along with the deacon, “For favorable weather, an abundance of the fruits of the earth, and temperate seasons, let us pray to the Lord.”

Honey is what it is, thank God!

from Fr. Ted’s blog

My parish is lucky enough to have our own vineyard right behind the church. This is very handy on the Feast of Transfiguration; at the end of the liturgy we can process out the doors and around the vineyard, to bless the grapes. It’s traditional to bless grapes or apples or any fruit, really, on this day.

Earlier on the feast day morning people brought into the church baskets of fruit and herbs and flowers. I carried a wooden bowl of blueberries and peaches. While we sang and communed and focused on the main event being commemorated, the fruit waited. The incense was particularly sweet that day, and I didn’t notice the smell of the beeswax candles as much as I usually do. Though I could see basil in a couple of the baskets, I didn’t catch its aroma either.

At the end of the service, with the prescribed prayers for the event, Father L. (and all of us) thanked God for all His bounty, and then he sprinkled holy water over the representative sampling.

He explained to us that this is not a superstitious rite we perform, using holy water to do magic on the fruit. When we bless anything in this way we do not make it into something other than what it is, but ask God to reveal it to be what it has always been.

Whatever created things we are talking about, they have always been meant by God to bring us into communion with Him. The service of blessing of fruit brings our thoughts back to Paradise, and the right and good use of the fruits of the earth that God has given us. We are reminded of how in the beginning God made Adam and Eve to be stewards over the Garden of Eden; human beings were called to exercise a loving and thankful dominion over the earth.

Russia

But we by our sin have instead caused destruction on the earth. Mankind more often than not has overused, abused and consumed in perverse ways the gifts of the Creator. Personally, I often gobble my food and eat without attentiveness to Him.

We have prayers for the blessing of bees and beehives and honey, too, usually in a separate service. Around here it’s August 1st, but I found pictures of honey blessings in Bulgaria where they do it dramatically on February 10 (see the bright cross picture down the page).

People like to take pictures of little girls and honey, I was happy to discover, and I am posting some of them here. The Russian ones are from Optina Monastery, and the Oregon photos from the Facebook page of New Martyrs of Russia Orthodox Church.

These honey and bee pictures are so enjoyable that I ended up with way more of them than of fruit. I hope you will hop over to the blog of Father Ted Bobosh where he posted a large and glorious photo collection of bees and other pollinators, such as the one I put at the very top, along with quotes about bees and Orthodox prayers for them. Just looking at the pictures will likely make you burst into prayer, too. Here is one of the prayers he posted:

From Father Ted

O God, who knows how to work benefits through human labor and irrational living things, You instructed us in your loving-kindness to employ the fruits and works of the bees for our needs. Now humbly we beseech Your majesty: Be pleased to bless the bees and increase them for the profit of the human race, preserving them and making them abundant. Let everyone hoping in Your majesty and Your boundless compassions, and laboring in the care of these living things, be counted worthy to receive abundant fruits of their labors and to be filled with heavenly blessings in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom is due glory, honor and worship unto ages of ages. Amen.

The photo above is from my church on Transfiguration, baskets of all kinds of fruits of the earth waiting for the prayers of blessing. Some of them were inspiring in the variety and arrangement of items, but one of my favorite baskets is the big one in front, full of apples picked just that morning.I don’t eat much honey these days, but I get a whiff of it in the candles every Sunday in church, and I can imagine the heady scent emanating from these tables laden with jars and bowls and plates of honey.

Doesn’t it just tell you something about our God, how sweet He is, and how extravagantly generous, that He would give us something as intense and rich as honey? The bees, of course, are also in the business of pollinating the fruit. The whole Creation and its interconnectedness is reflected in the Church and in our salvation history, all of a piece and orchestrated in love by our dear Father God.

Fr. L blessing beehives
Blessing honey in Bulgaria
Honey blessing in Oregon
Oregon honeycomb