Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Monastery Visits II: Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration

Monastery of the Transfiguration, Ellwood City, PA

When a couple from our church suggested visiting the ‘monastery for the nuns’ back in winter, I jumped at the chance to go with them. Eleven of us made the trek at the beginning of June and stayed two nights in the guest houses at the Monastery of the Transfiguration. It’s a beautiful place, well established on 100 acres of gentle rolling hills and wooded property in Lawrence County, PA just about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

We all had a wonderful stay; the nuns are most hospitable, indeed, hospitality is one oftheir primary objectives, second only to their life in prayer. In fact, I learned that their guest homes are occupied nearly every weekend from spring through fall, hosting a steady stream of visitors, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The nuns enjoy the opportunity to share their monastic life with others and provide a place of beauty and retreat for weary souls.

Mother Paula telling us about the Semantron, an instrument used to call monastics to prayer and worship.

Monasticism interests me in general because of it’s call to live within the world, but apart from it -- stepping away from the loud noise and chaos that technology and the ever present attitude of ‘time is money’ lends to modern life in the USA. It’s something I struggle with and I think many others do too-- many of us on that fast-paced wheel of earning a living and rarely finding time for peace, contemplation and nurturing friendships. This particular monastery interested me due to it’s royal beginnings. The monastery’s foundress, the former Princess Illeana of Romania, born Her Royal Highness to Ferdinand I of Romania and his Queen, Marie of Romania in 1909, is a fascinating tale. The book documenting her life, Royal Monastic by Bev. Cooke is on my reading list for the summer since I’d like to learn more details about her life under communism and exile and how she ended up in America.

A youthful Princess Ileana of Romania. Image found in public domain.

This exquisite rug was a gift from Mother Alexandra, the former Princess Illeana, originally made in Russia.

Icon of the Theotokos and the Christ Child in the garden.

Soon after we arrived on the monastery grounds, Mother Paula greeted us with much warmth and offered a tour just as the sun was setting. She was so gracious with all our questions and was especially interested in talking to the young children in our group, making sure she presented her information in a way they could understand. All the nuns seem fond of children and go out of their way to include them in activities and conversation, much to my delight. I cannot overstate the warmth of our welcome here...

..and, after learning just how many guests they receive each week, it’s kind of amazing to me that they have such energy to engage each guest in such a personable way. I expected to see a beautiful place, full of quiet and peace and was not disappointed. The gardens, the cemetery and picnic gazebo all provide places of contemplative retreat. I never even found time to explore their wooded trails; this will be on the list for my next visit. I did not expect to see a playhouse full of things for children to enjoy or the large swing-set outside our guest house, occupying a small area of a vast and lush lea. What smiles this brought to our youngsters! They had fun, too, chasing fireflies in this same area on our first evening.

I don’t have many photos to show you the beauty of their chapel. Among my many quirks is the reluctance to photograph sacred spaces. I don’t have any valid reason for that, as the nuns told us we could photograph inside. I just have an abiding sense that I may be trivializing the subject and not showing the true quality of the place. Maybe that will change as my photography improves.

The guest houses are very comfy and provided everything we needed -a stocked refrigerator, toiletries, linens, and cozy spaces in which to converse with each other in the evenings. This, too, is another great aspect of our trip, getting to know our church family on a more personal level.

Another unexpected element of this trip was the awakening of my weaknesses. In a romantic way, I’ve entertained the idea that at some future point, maybe when I’m old and if I find myself alone, that I could possibly live the life of an Orthodox nun. I am so wrong. Loving God, His creation... cherishing simplicity and serving your fellow sister is not enough. The nuns lead a life comparable to an Olympic athlete. What exercise is to the body of an Olympian, prayer and worship is to the spirit. Monastics are the most disciplined people in this regard and I came to the awkward reality that I am such a weak vessel. So very weak in light of their rigorous prayer and worship services. Even in my 4th decade of being a Christian, I am a babe in the womb, for what is knowledge and faith apart from practice? Privately, I felt ashamed of myself, yet encouraged by the nuns’ disciplined example.

The meals were delicious and the setting very clean, bright and cheerful. A blessing, too, that I was able to make the acquaintance of Fr. Thomas Hopko and dined at his table on two different occasions. He served at Divine Liturgy on Sunday. His easy manner of speaking, his smooth voice and engaging facial expressions are most memorable. Since this was the Sunday of Pentecost, His homily was about the Holy Spirit and how, without It, we are nothing but animals, not able to reason or choose God.

The highlight of this weekend came during a precious hour+ Mother Caritina spent with me in her gardens, educating me about the various plants and flowers. This time was followed by a lesson for the young girls beside a tree, complete with birds darting to and fro, as if they were trying to hear, too. Mother Caritina gave to each girl a book she had crafted to tell the story of Jesus Christ and some of the history of our faith. Her patience and love for these girls was very evident. The girls took turns reading aloud and answered Mother Caritina’s questions. It made me smile quietly to know that our young ones do know a lot about Christ and our faith. When my daughter responded to a question and told Mother about Zacchaeus, the tax collector, Mother Caritina smiled greatly and exclaimed, “Oh! You make my heart happy to hear this!”

a type of Geranium plant, Mother showed us how to rub the leaves and then our faces to keep insects away

My favorite moment spent over the weekend...

The weekend flew by. We left soon after coffee hour/lunch on Sunday, but not before visiting their fabulous book store one last time! I bought a book on St. Innocent of Alaska (which we’re currently reading aloud in the evenings),some beeswax candles, coin purses made in Guatemala and a few humorous greeting cards. The nuns gave each of the young girls a cute T-Shirt that said, “Sing Praises to God!.... Make it a habit!”

Thank you, dear ones, of Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, for hosting our group. We look forward to our next visit with you. Glory to God for all things! †

Except where noted, all photos © 2011 Amy L. Thornton. All Rights Reserved. Please do not use without asking ; ' )


elizabeth said...

what a blessing! thank you for sharing!

amy said...

Thank you for your comment, dear Elizabeth. God bless!

Anonymous said...

It's just as beautiful as the last time I was there!

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