The Founding of the Convent of St. Thekla at Antiochian Village
Thanks be to God, the Convent of Saint Thekla has been founded on the property of the Antiochian Village in July of 2009 by His Eminence, Metropolitan Philip. The Archbishop had long foreseen the establishment of a community of traditional nuns involved with pastoral ministry, withdrawing to pray and then returning to share their monastic life with the faithful. The plan is that the nuns will maintain a monastic schedule of services, private discipline and prayer, involve themselves in the many ministries at the Antiochian Village, and accept invitations from local parishes.
As Acting Superior of the Convent, I hit the ground running when I arrived, only unpacking some daily items, praying for the success of the seed the Lord has planted in His vineyard, and then walking over to the camp to greet the Staff and meet the campers. They have been eager for the presence of monastics and they came to me to introduce themselves and to ask for prayers. Many times I was told, “Welcome Home.” After only a couple of hours, I knew that I had met my newest, closest 250 friends. Over the next few days I had the opportunity to pray with our young faithful, to lead discussions, and to speak with them about our faith from the heart. Yes, there was the occasional football toss, the discussion of martial arts, our culture, and everything a person would ever want to know about nuns. We had a lot of fun, and it is meet and right that we should have enjoyed each other.
To be clear, the Convent of Saint Thekla has been established for the Orthodox faithful. Many years ago I had an invitation to return to monastic life in an Orthodox monastery in Greece. Easily, I could have packed my suitcase, distributed my few belongings, and departed, following our Lord’s instruction to “go and sell all that you have and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). At the time, I knew that there was a need here in the United States, as I witnessed people thirsting for spirituality, sometimes looking in the right places and other times desperately searching for an image in places like a grilled cheese sandwich. I knew what it was to live in a rushed culture – “hurry up and get it done yesterday” – and realized that I was a stranger in a foreign land called the world. I desired a place to slow down and breathe God’s life and I knew that God would show me the way and the place. I completed my theological education, paid for it, taught theology, ministered to the youth, prayed and discerned God’s will. As I was ﬁrst taught in monastic life, I sought to become more of a stranger to the world so that I could welcome others who sought the same.
During the time I spent as a monastic out in the world, God taught me more than I ever could have imagined about how to live in this world and combat the two forces that prevail against us: ourselves and the devil. Practically, I was shown the truth of the maxims of the Mothers and Fathers of monasticism: we cannot live alone unless we can live with others. They explain that solitude is necessary so that we can spend time and listen to God, but it is useless if we cannot be with others whom God has sent to us. Many people think of monks and nuns as the folks that are up in the middle of the night praying and making prostrations. While this is often true and necessary, it is of no use if we cannot cast ourselves down with our hearts in our lives. It is one thing to heed all of the calls to prayer, but another to fail to heed the call of a brother or sister.
That there is precedence for hospitality in monasticism is no surprise, because charity naturally ﬂows out of the monastic life. History records that, in times of need, monks and nuns have provided food for the hungry, lodging for the homeless, education for many who would have no education, stability and care for orphans, and the survival of language and culture. Such outpouring is also explained by the fact that Orthodox monastic life, reﬂective of the Church, is organic and grows based on its surroundings. It is natural for Orthodox persons in relationship with others to be attuned to needs other than their own. So there can be no “cut-and-paste theology,” or transporting of a convent from one place to another; what is developing at the Convent of Saint Thekla is new and in response to our Archdiocese.
Following the tried and true model associated with Saints Basil and Pachomius of the 4th century, the community is cenobitic, sharing all things. While Saint Pachomius’s community leaned toward separation from the world, Saint Basil’s community reached out to others. After living for less than a year in solitude in Neocaesarea, and having been trained in the monastic ways by his sister, Saint Macrina, Saint Basil began to welcome other men intent on the same purpose. His understanding of the importance of stability in cenobitic monastic life and the relationship of monastics to all people expanded to include assistance of the poor and the opening of a soup kitchen. Today, Saint Basil’s actions inspire us to meet a different, spiritual hunger. His ascetical writings continue to spur us forward, reminding us that we are bound by our very human nature to one another and that “the mark of the Christian is to love one another as Christ has loved us.”
The question then becomes speciﬁc: “How will the nuns at the Convent of Saint Thekla touch people’s lives?” The answer is simple, yet the process is a profound, lifelong, arduous but sweet monastic labor. In short, the nuns need to be nuns. Like all Orthodox Christians, nuns strive daily to be Orthodox in mind and heart, and to be “in the world and not of the world.” As monastics, we continue our journey as Christians by divesting ourselves of distractions, renouncing our possessions and ourselves, so that we may “seek the things that are above” (Colossians 3:11) and be true witnesses of the grace of God, reﬂecting the purity and freedom of God’s image and likeness.
As Christians, we are baptized and enter into God’s life of love. This life is communion, self-emptying, and going outside oneself to another. God who is love, created us out of love to be in love with Him and all creation. We ﬁ nd ourselves fallen, and often hear the excuse, “We are fallen.” While this is true, it cannot be an excuse, or the sequel to the story, or even worse, an endpoint, when in reality “our citizenship is in heaven” and Jesus Christ will change us (Philippians 3:20). God has given us His Son, incarnate of the Virgin Mary . . . . We know the story and need to enter into it every moment of every day. This is a basis for the monastic life: meme Theon, or the remembrance of God. It sounds minimal, and we know how difﬁcult it becomes for us to live daily with the remembrance of God, a witness of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. Here, at the heart of the Christian life, is where monastic and non-monastic meet.
When I received my ﬁrst black belt in the martial arts, I was full of pride – “Finally, I am accomplished!” That wore off very quickly as the grandmaster ﬂatly assured me, “Black belt is basic.” The same can be said of monastic life and tonsure – “Basic.” With God’s help, we fall and rise, realizing that the life we live bends our minds and our hearts.
Like other monastic houses in the world, we hope that the Convent of Saint Thekla will be an oasis for the faithful to divest themselves of their busy lives and concerns and immerse themselves in the refreshing basics of Orthodox life – remembrance of God – in prayer and work. This focus is gradually acquired through asceticism, or spiritual training. It is an aspect of our Christian lives and a vehicle which helps to strain out what is not helpful or distracting. We may only think of fasting when we think of asceticism, but fasting is only one aspect of our training. It includes attending the liturgical life of the Church, the Divine Liturgy and the hours; this rhythm helps us to enter into God’s life as revealed in word and tradition and in the lives of His Saints. It reminds us of who we are and the mystery in which He has called us to participate. We attempt to cleanse ourselves of that which is unclean and to live with others in love.
Monastics struggle with these things just as others do, but we hope that through our struggle we can empathize. In the icon of the Ladder of Saint John Climacus is a lesson. It depicts monks ascending to heaven and descending, but of most interest is the falling monk. Perhaps the moral is that monastics set the mark high, and when we fall, we fall a long way. Personal repentance is a natural ministry of monastics that is only fulﬁ lled by an in-depth union with all humankind. When as a monastic we pray, “Lord, have mercy on me,“ we pray not only for own salvation but for the salvation of all.
We, too, live in a world where we are bombarded with material goods, food, sights and sounds. It is our ﬁrm hope that our manner of living will be a stronghold for all trying to discern God’s will in their lives, especially for our youth. We all live on an information highway, and we soon discover that not everything we need is available on the TV, the Internet or through a text message. Although these things can be tools, nothing substitutes for presence. Not all of us promise to be poor, but we are all stewards of that which has been given to us by God. We all need to be responsible about what we take into our bodies, and this includes food, sights and sounds.
Please pray for us and for all who will come to the Convent of Saint Thekla as temporary or permanent pilgrims.
Mother Alexandra, Acting Abbess of Saint Thekla’s Convent