Monasticism: a strange and distant life for most of us, but for the called, a life of prayer, chastity, poverty, all for the glory of God. Ancient Faith Radio takes you to Rives Junction, Michigan, situated between Lansing and Jackson, in an isolated and tranquil section of the country. The Dormition of the Mother of God, or Holy Dormition, Monastery, is the home to eight nuns; plus two young novices; an aging and remarkable hieromonk, Fr. Roman Braga; a newly appointed hierodeacon; and the abbess of Holy Dormition, Mother Gabriella. Recently, Ancient Faith Radio’s Patricia Kushiner traveled to Rives Junction and captured this fascinating and inspiring interview with Mother Gabriella of Holy Dormition Monastery. [Nuns chanting in Romanian]
Ms. Patricia Kushiner: Mother, what kind of life did you have as a child, and how do you think it prepared you to become a monastic?
Mother Gabriella: I grew up in a Christian home with a very pious mother, and I take this as a gift from God, since we don’t choose where we are born, what place on earth or what kind of family. But I was blessed to have a pious family and that I grew up close to a number of large monasteries, both of men and women. If I think back, the environment did prepare me for the monastic life, although as a child I was not aware of it; only if I look back on it now I realize that.
So we went to church, we kept the Church calendar at home, the feast days and the fasts, and celebrating the feasts of the Church. We went to the monasteries on pilgrimages as children also. There we had a spiritual father, one of the great monastics of Romania, though, again, as a child I did not realize that. That Fr. Paisios, who was the spiritual father of Fr. Cleopas, whose life has been translated into English and circulates among the Christians in this country, was our spiritual father, the family’s spiritual father. So in that respect I was very blessed to have those people around me.
Ms. Kushiner: Now, I understand that you entered the monastery at a fairly young age. Can you tell us a little bit about what circumstances led you to enter the monastery when you did?
Mother Gabriella: God provides opportunities. Yes, I was finishing high school. And we had a friend of the family who had become a nun, and I met her that spring, as I was finishing high school. And she asked me what I would like to do after I finished high school, and I gave her a very vague answer. Her reply to me was: “Would you like to enter or try the monastic life?” And at that moment it was like she hit me over the head. I never thought of it, and I did not think that I would do something like that, but with that question I thought of it.
Then I went to visit, and that was the beginning of my journey. So I would say that she was influential in making my decision. God spoke through her. This is how God called me. It was through this particular nun, whom I respected very much. As a child, I looked at her as someone very special, although I had not had much contact with her, except just a few times. But nevertheless, that was the crucial moment.
And, of course, if I look back at Fr. Paisios, with his guidance and his teaching, encouraging me to pray and to believe in God in these very simple ways, he told me to pray even as a child. He would tell me, “Say, ‘Lord, have mercy’ during the day as often as you can think of it, as you play, if it comes to mind, just say, ‘Lord, have mercy’ a few times.” As a child, he told me, “Say ‘Our Father’ in the evening before you go to bed, and do twelve prostrations—just twelve—and then in the morning, if you can wake up in time before you go to school, do that again. See if you can do that.” It was very unassuming, very simple advice. And I, as a child who gets homework, I tried to do that: do my homework. I was not very good at it, so every time when I went back to Fr. Paisios I felt a little embarrassed, telling him, “I didn’t remember much of saying, ‘Lord, have mercy’ during the day…”
But those were probably the people who were most influential in somewhat directing me towards this kind of life, although then I didn’t know, but that time came, as I finished high school, God provided that particular incident for me to make me think of it. And then I went and visited the monastery, and within a couple months I made my decision to go there.
Ms. Kushiner: Did you have certain expectations or preconceived ideas of what it would be like to be a monastic, and is it different from what you expected?
Mother Gabriella: No, I didn’t have any expectations.
Ms. Kushiner: Oh!
Mother Gabriella: I don’t think I had, although I had visited the monasteries as a pilgrim. To me, monastics are somewhat of a mystery.
Ms. Kushiner: Yeah.
Mother Gabriella: And I’ve watched them from a distance, but I was not part of their life, the inside life of the monastic, and at that age, I don’t think I realized what it meant. There was just something in my heart that pushed me that way, but nothing very clear, and I simply did not expect anything in particular. I did not know, but I knew I wanted to be there. It’s one of those things that is hard to explain. So with that, I don’t think I can say that it’s different than what I expected to be, or it’s better or worse. It was just… It was a life for me to learn and to explore and to grow into it.
When I went to the monastery, it was Mother Benedicta who had taken me, to instruct and to guide me, and she did not make it sound that it was very appealing or easy. On the contrary, she emphasized the difficulty within the life, that it is a hard life. It is a martyr’s life. This is how she made me understand, and I thought I would never… “She’s trying to discourage me. I wonder why.” And I said to myself, “Well, no matter how hard it’s going to be, I still want to try it and find out for myself if I can do it or not.” This is how I started out the journey.
Ms. Kushiner: I’ve heard that monastics say it’s a hard life but it’s a life that contains much joy. Did you find that in addition to the hard life?
Mother Gabriella: If the monastic life would not have a lot of joy and spiritual fulfillment, no one would live the monastic life. And it’s not really that hard, because it’s a life that we choose to live. When you choose to do something, God gives the grace, and it’s not so difficult, and obviously, it’s not impossible, but it’s not given for everyone to live this kind of life. And that, again, is quite obvious.
So we do believe that those who take on the monastic life are called by God. As God has a plan with each one of us, so he has a plan with a few to live the monastic life, to dedicate, to serve him, to serve the world in this respect. So there is a lot of joy in that those who experience it, they would never want to exchange that for anything else in the world.
The difficult part of it, I think there are two aspects. One is the physical effort, the hard work, the long hours of prayers, the fasting. It’s just less comfort, physical comfort, bodily comfort. The other difficult aspect of it is denying yourself, and “cutting off of the will” is a monastic expression, on giving of yourself, the obedience. Some people find obedience quite difficult. So there are two aspects here that makes the monastic life a hard way of life, but as I said, if we do that, if we can understand and do that whole-heartedly, for the right reasons, it’s not hard. As we make a little bit of effort and experience the joy and the reward that we receive from that, then one would like to make even more effort to experience greater joy.
[Nun chants verse: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior!]
[Nuns chant in response: More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, who without loss of virginity gave birth to God the Word: true Birth-giver of God, we praise you!]
Ms. Kushiner: A natural question that might follow to this discussion is, well: To whom is the abbess obedient? To whom are you obedient?
Mother Gabriella: The abbess, of course, first of all, has to be obedient to God, to the holy Gospel, the teachings of the holy Scripture, and then the spiritual father. Everyone will have a spiritual father for confession and counsel. Then the abbess is obedient, in some aspects, to the whole community, because an abbess is an abbess of a community, and we work together. Although someone must be the leader, the spokesperson for the community, we work together.
Ms. Kushiner: Certainly.
Mother Gabriella: We are brothers and sisters and Christ. An abbess or an abbot is still a monastic. So obedience is to the other fellow monastics also, so in some ways an abbess or an abbot has even more obedience than the others. The novices and the sisters, they know they have to be obedient to their superior, to their spiritual mother, but the abbess has to be obedient to everyone. We have to respect the needs of everyone, to think in very selfless terms what is to be done, how to administer for the community, for the good of the community. Obedience is absolutely necessary for the leaders of the community also.
Ms. Kushiner: Let’s go back and talk about your journey again. How did you come to America, and when this monastery was founded, what is its mission? Maybe those are two separate questions.
Mother Gabriella: Yes, let’s go back to how I came to the United States. It’s a mystery and a miracle. After I entered the monastery in Romania, and I was a novice to Mother Benedicta, then it was only four years later that I was asked if I would come to the United States with her to help with the monastery in Pennsylvania. I probably need to explain a little bit how this came about. Mother Benedicta was an older sister of Fr. Roman. Fr. Roman was in the United States at that time, and he invited Mother Benedicta to come and visit him, so Mother Benedicta journeyed to the united States and visited the monastery in Pennsylvania.
At that time, it was Mother Alexandra who was the abbess there, and two other sisters, and they asked Mother Benedicta if she would come and help with establishing the community in Pennsylvania. So Mother Benedicta agreed to come, so she traveled back to Romania, and then the petition was made through the immigration office that two nuns would come as religious workers to the United States. This is how I was asked to come, and that was in 1978, and I came with Mother Benedicta to the United States.
Ms. Kushiner: Could we quickly identify who Fr. Roman is, give a little of his history, too?
Mother Gabriella: In a nutshell, Fr. Roman is a monk, or a hieromonk, from Romania. He studied in a monastic seminary, starting at the age of eleven years old, went through schooling, theological school, and I think he has a degree in literature also, liberal arts and law. He taught high school in Bucharest for a few years. Then he was taken to prison, a Communist prison. I think for six years, the first imprisonment. Then he became a monk and was ordained a deacon and a priest in Iași, at the capital city of the province of Moldova in Romania. And after he was tonsured a monk and ordained, he was taken to prison for five more years.
After he came out of prison, just a few short years after that, he was sent as a missionary to Brazil, to the Mayan community. After only about four years in Brazil, he came to the United States, and he worked for the Romanian Episcopate here in the United States. This is how Fr. Roman came to the United States.
He comes from a large, pious family, and the family, they had two other brothers who are monastics, and then Mother Benedicta also. Mother Benedicta suffered along with Fr. Roman through his imprisonment, as part of… a member of the family. She was given a visa to visit him after so many years of separation. It was because Fr. Roman was in this country that Mother Benedicta came to visit him, and then the nuns got this idea of inviting Mother Benedicta to come to this country. That was in… Mother Benedicta visited in ‘76, and we immigrated to the United States in ‘78, two years later.
Ms. Kushiner: What was the mission of the women’s monastery there, Holy Transfiguration in Ellwood City? I get the impression from Mother Alexandra that she founded this monastery with a specific intent. Can you tell us more about that?
Mother Gabriella: Generally speaking, every Orthodox monastery has the same mission, of being a place of prayer, a place for those who are called to live the monastic life, for their own salvation and for the salvation of the world. Generally speaking, that is the mission of monasticism. And no monastic community, I think, is set up with a specific mission in mind as you’ll find in the West, but, by virtue of being there…
The mission is to be there to offer hospitality and a place for the Christians to come, for the faithful to come, for keeping the liturgical cycle of prayers, to keep the flame of prayer burning for the good of the whole world, to provide that unity of Christ and the world. By being separated from the world, becoming united with Christ… Being united with Christ we are united with one another. That’s the basic mission of every monastic community. Now, the particular mission is according to whatever is needed in that particular area, in the particular church that the monastery belongs to.
Years back, Mother Alexandra was considered to be a pioneer of monasticism in this country because there were only maybe two other monastic communities in the United States at that time. There was a problem of language in the Church at that time also. There was a period of transition from other languages to English. A new generation was born within the Orthodox Church in this country, so there was a need for English. So if we talk about a mission, Mother Alexandra’s mission was to establish a monastic community, an English-speaking monastic community, in the United States, to have this available for American-born women to come and learn and give the opportunity to become monastics. That was that particular mission of that community and still is. The monastery is still functioning and growing.
So Mother Benedicta and myself coming there, we started to live and to be an example. Mother Benedicta grew up in the monastery all her life, so this way of life was her way of life, and it was very natural. So it was a living example. It was not something that she was trying to figure out or to learn, where it was her way of life, and it was organic, very natural.
[Nun chants verse: The Lord is mighty and has done great things for me and holy is his name, and his mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him.]
[Nuns chant in response: More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, who without loss of virginity gave birth to God the Word: true Birth-giver of God, we praise you!]
[Nun chants verse: He has shown the power of his arm; he has routed the proud of heart.]
[Nuns chant in response: Ceea ce eşti mai cinstită decât heruvimii şi mai marită fără de asemănare decât serafimii, care fără stricăciune pe Dumnezeu-Cuvântul ai născut, pe tine, cea cu adevărat. Născătoare de Dumnezeu, te mărim.]
Ms. Kushiner: You are listening to Ancient Faith Radio, and we are talking with Mother Gabriella, abbess of Holy Dormition Monastery. Mother, I know that the monastic model in the East is very different from that in the West. Can you tell us what these differences are?
Mother Gabriella: There are a few basic differences between West and East with regards to monasticism. As we know, Western monasticism today is quite different to Orthodox monasticism today. Orthodox monasticism remained the same as from its beginning. They retired from the world; they removed themselves from the world in monastic communities, usually that are set up at the edge of the cities, in more remote and quiet areas, to provide an environment for prayer and meditation and a place for pilgrims also, for them to journey to a quiet, remote place for retreat, for prayer and meditation and counsel. Western monastics, they are more involved in the daily life of the people of the society in teaching, counseling, nursing, that aspect of life, working with the people, among the people.
One other difference is Western monasticism is directed by the rule of the particular order, and this is how they can function outside of the community and within the society, because they abide by the rule. Orthodox monasticism is based on the relationship between spiritual father/spiritual mother, spiritual child. There are rules and there’s a discipline within every community, but the spiritual growth is based on that personal relationship and guidance of each one, because each one of us are different, and each one has different spiritual needs, and we are at different spiritual levels of growth. So that spiritual relationship is very important.
Orthodox monasticism is based on the tradition of the Fathers. each community is guided and always remembers those who have lived in that community before and moved on and now they are in the cemetery. [We] always refer to “as our Fathers have taught us,” “as our spiritual mother who now lies in the cemetery has taught us to live.” That gives the specific characteristic of each of the monastic communities, in the Orthodox Church, in the East, we refer to. Those are, I think, basic differences.
Now, Orthodox monasticism, as I said, is an intense life of prayer and asceticism removed from the world, in order that we ourselves grow in a deeper relationship with God, in order to serve our fellow man better. We believe if we grow spiritually, if we deepen our spiritual relationship with God, if we deny ourselves, then in that we follow Christ’s example of sacrifice for the world. In this way, Orthodox monastics sacrifice themselves for the whole world. What makes a good monastic is one who can bear in one’s heart the joys and the sorrows of the world, is one who has reached that level of identifying oneself with the pain and the suffering of the world, with the needs of every Christian who lives in the world. And because monastic communities are somewhat removed from the world, from the noise of the world, from the activities of [the] everyday world, then it provides a place also for pilgrims to come and find rest and peace and a word of counsel and of comfort.
The one very important thing about Orthodox communities is to have a guest house. So the guest house is important. We are to offer hospitality for those who come.
Ms. Kushiner: When a pilgrim comes to spend time at the monastery, what advice would you give them for staying at a monastery? Because many have not had that opportunity, or would like that opportunity but really don’t know quite what to do. What advice would you give them?
Mother Gabriella: For those who don’t know, who would be a first-time pilgrim, we encourage them to come and be themselves. Try to leave the worries of their everyday life behind. Try to be quiet, first of all. Just allow yourself to be in the presence of God when you go to the monastery, and allow God to speak to you.
We do tell people about the length of the services, and that I learned from one of the pilgrims who, after being in church for a couple hours, said, “What do you do in church so many hours?” not being used to it. It was such a revelation to me that there are people who are not used to being in church, silent, for an hour or two or three or four, and that does—what do you do? In the sense of: what do you do with your heart, with your mind, if you’re not used to it, to meditate, to pray, to concentrate, to discipline yourself? So that is very important.
We tell people, we warn people, to say that services are long, and to try to participate as much as they can, to make an effort. The advice is that you take one verse, maybe, that you hear in the service, of the songs of the prayer, and meditate on it for a length of time until another verse and another word from what is read again touches your heart, and then meditate on that and pray. This is how God works.
But nevertheless, the most important thing is not to expect anything in particular. Be quiet and listen. Try to meditate. Try to listen to God’s speaking to you.
Many people come with some particular request or need. They can ask the spiritual father, the spiritual mother of the community for that advice, for a spiritual word. People might come for confession. People come to just remove themselves from their everyday routine for a little bit. This is following the example of Christ, to have retreated in the wilderness, to pray and fast. So all of us have that need. Do we realize it or not? Do we take that time or not? That’s up to us, but all of us have that need. So we advise people to do that.
The experience will be their own. The experience that each one has in visiting, in making a retreat at the monastery is always greater and more beneficial than anyone has expected.
Ms. Kushiner: There are many pilgrims who come here and spend time, and I think, as you say, have benefited, but can you talk a little bit, too, about those who are more attached to the monastery and the relationship you have with them? You’re not a closed community in the sense that you don’t work with laity, or with only just monastics.
Mother Gabriella: Again, this is a tradition in the Orthodox Church, of communities growing around the monasteries. For those people who come or would like to experience a closer relationship, it’s the prayer life of a monastic community. They’re inspired by the monastics, by their dedication to dedicate their lives to God more than others. I think it’s because we always look for examples in our lives. We read the lives of the saints. We read about the lives of those who lived before us, whether monastics or laypeople, but it always as human beings we need those examples to be encouraged in our lives. In every aspect of life, I think we people look for examples to follow, to be encouraged by. This is why there are some people who would like, if they had the possibility, to move closer physically to the monastery, where they could have a closer contact with monastic communities.
The relationship, I think, is a very natural, normal relationship of fellow Christians. Of course, they need to understand and respect the monastics, their hours of quiet and work. They like to offer their time and effort and whatever talents they have to contribute to the work of the monastery, again, for the benefit of other people. I think those who come to work with us are those who understand that the work they offer extends to so many more people, that if they come to help with beautifying the place, there are so many other people who come and benefit from that, to find joy and spiritual delight in being at the monastery for a few hours or for a day or two. If they come to help in the kitchen, in the preparation of food or washing dishes or cleaning the dining room, again, they know it’s a way of offering hospitality to other pilgrims who come. And they do understand that they are participating in the obedience—a little bit, to some extent—in the obedience of the monastics, and they learn that: how to be obedient, because they learn how to ask for a blessing before they start their work, and they learn how to ask how to do the work and how the work needs to be done, and that creates that beautiful relationship.
[Nun chants verse: No, I shall not die. I shall live to recite the deeds of the Lord.]
[Nuns chant in response: God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us. Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!]
[Nun chants verse: It was the stone rejected by the builders that proved to be the keystone. This is the Lord’s doing and it is wonderful to see.]
[Nuns chant in response: Dumnezeu este Domnul şi S-a arătat nouă; bine este cuvântat Cel ce vine întru numele Domnului.]
Ms. Kushiner: A typical day for you is composed of prayer, works of hospitality, and other work. Can you describe what else nuns do during the day?
Mother Gabriella: I hope that our monastic community here follows the model of monastic communities in general as regards to the work of every day. Every monastic community, including ourselves, will start with prayers early in the morning, and then the work that needs to be done that particular day. The general work that you’ll find in every monastic community would be: food preparation and serving at the table and cleaning and maintenance, the work that is required to maintain the buildings and the function of a community every day. Every monastic community, including ours, does some type of work that would provide for the needs of the community. The idea is that every monastic community is self-sufficient, so monastics will work to provide for their own daily bread, so to say. Our particular community does a variety of things, although the community is small in numbers, we do some iconography, some mounting of icons that people buy for their own homes; we do some sewing of vestments and altar covers and cassocks for priests. Those are the things that will provide for the income for the benefit of the community, plus a few other things, crafts and prayer ropes, and a few other art things. Having a vegetable garden to provide some—a very small portion—of the food needed for the community and for the pilgrims. Having an orchard, also; it helps with the food needed. We have published a couple of books. We write a journal, a monastic journal, three times a year. As I said, this would be other things aside from offering hospitality and answering the phone and paying the bills and all of those other things that are necessary for the function of the community.
Ms. Kushiner: So if a woman were interested in becoming part of this monastic community as a monastic, what would you say to her?
Mother Gabriella: If anyone expresses a desire to join the monastic community, we advise the person to come and visit first, and find out for herself what it is and what that particular monastic community is, because it’s two ways: one needs to be accepted in the community, and the other part of it is one needs to fit within that particular community. It’s a little bit like a marriage, that it has to work together. Each monastic community is just a little different, by virtue of the size of the community, the work that the community does, the geographical area where the community is placed, those are little differences, and each one will have to find a community where one can fit in and is able to be part of it.
So the first thing is to encourage the person to visit as much as possible before making the decision. Of course, we explain what the conditions are and basically that one has to be free of family obligations, of financial restrictions, and those are very important things. And then is to explain what is expected of the person, what the schedule is, what the type of work that community does, and to try to form a relationship even before the person makes a commitment. Of course, anyone, I would say, that has thought of entering a monastic community, we encourage them to pursue that, because there’s so many people who don’t even think of it, but if there’s anyone out there who has that question within themselves, we encourage them to pursue that, find out why even the question is there. Is God calling you? So go and find out what it is. Answer. Know God’s call.
Ms. Kushiner: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Mother Gabriella for joining us here and allowing us to interview you here on Ancient Faith Radio. We’re very grateful, and it’s been a pleasure.
Mother Gabriella: It’s been a pleasure for me, too, and thank you very much for inviting me to speak with you today. I pray this will be beneficial for those who listen. God bless.
A visit with Mother Gabriella, abbess of Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan. Interviewing Mother Gabriella was Ancient Faith Radio’s Patricia Kushiner. Information on Holy Dormition Monastery is available at their website, which is dormitionmonastery.com. Find out more about the monastic life and perhaps explore how you can help the monastery with their building fund for a new chapel. That’s dormitionmonastery.com.