Mother Christophora - The Monastic Saints of Great Lent
April 23, 2013 Length: 25:06Mother Christophora was asked to give the homily at the Pan-Orthodox Sunday Lenten Vespers service for the Youngstown, Ohio, area. Vespers was held at St. John the Baptist (OCA) in Campbell, Ohio. She spoke about the monastic saints commemorated on the Sundays of Lent and then spoke about a contemporary monastic, Mother Alexandra, and what she might have to say to us today.
All of us Orthodox Christians know that during Lent, every year—it’s always in the lenten calendar of the Orthodox Church—we remember on the Sundays of Lent certain monastic saints. On the second Sunday of Lent, St. Gregory Palamas, the great defender of the hesychast life, Archbishop of Thessalonica, monk of Mt. Athos, of the 14th century. On the fourth Sunday of Lent, last Sunday, St. John the Ladder, that monk who lived in the desert for 40 years and wrote—had time to think, had time to pray and fast, and understand better the spiritual life—and wrote for us a wonderful book called The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This Sunday we had, of course, brought before our eyes the great image of repentance, St. Mary of Egypt.
When we’re brought face to face with these ancient ascetical saints of the Church, and we’re living in now the 21st century in the northeastern United States, passing by Perkins and all kinds of places each day, bombarded with communication more than we probably need and almost no time to be alone, with no opportunity for silence, we might ask ourselves, “What in the world are these monastic saints—why are these on the calendar? Why are they still brought before us, and what are they trying to teach us?”
I thought it might be interesting tonight to look at someone of our time and actually of our place, someone who lived an ascetic life, a monastic life, as well as a married life, and visited this very church many times in her life and the other Orthodox parishes of Youngstown and Campbell, Ohio, who was known in our area and actually even took her last breath here in Youngstown in St. Elizabeth Hospital, twentysome years ago. Many of you knew her, met her, spoke with her, took advice from her, kissed her hand, and asked her prayers.
I am, of course, talking about Mother Alexandra, Princess Ileana of Romania, and foundress of our monastery in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. I think she has something she wants to tell us tonight. For those of you who don’t know her, I’m going to give just a very short summary of her life, but then move on to what I think she wants to tell us in our time and in our place.
She was born just a few years before the beginning of World War I, and she was indeed a real-life princess, the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie of Romania, from the royal line of her mother from the royal line of Russia and England, the British royal family, and her father from the Hohenzollern family of Germany: real, true royal blood. She was called Ileana. She was the youngest daughter of this couple. She had a younger brother. I believe there were six children altogether. One of her sisters was queen of Greece. Another sister of hers was queen of Yugoslavia. It’s quite a beginning to one’s life, but her life was anything but easy.
She accompanied her mother, the beloved Queen Marie of Romania, as a six- [or] seven-year-old child, to visit wounded Romanian soldiers in hospitals in Bucharest. She saw the starvation during World War I as a child. [She] and the royal family, deprived of basic nutrition, also suffered. [She] herself [suffered] all her life from that nutritional absence as a child. She grew up to be married [to] a grand duke of Austria, and they had six children in ten years, so she knew what it was to raise children and to be very busy with that responsibility, to get them all to the same place at the same time. Those of you, mothers, who do that on Sunday morning or get kids ready for school, that’s no small ascetical effort by any means.
As she was raising her teenaged children, World War II broke out. At that time, their own [lives] were in great danger, and she didn’t think so much about that as she worried about [the] soldiers of her country of Romania who were wounded. She was living in Austria at that time, the country of her husband, and she started a hospital to take care of the Romanian soldiers who were wounded there. Then they had to leave Austria and came back to Romania and started a hospital near Bran Castle to treat soldiers, and actually hid and protected many whose lives were threatened by the Communists and by the Nazis. She put her own life on the line and even the [lives] of her children, because she was hiding in the castle some much-wanted, much-sought-after generals and soldiers.
As soon as the war ended and Communism took over her most beloved country of Romania, she, her nephew the king, and all the royal family had to leave very quickly, in just a matter, I believe, of 48 hours, she packed a few things and left with her six children. She found herself in Switzerland, then in Argentina, raising her children. At that time, she and her husband parted, and she was alone raising teenaged children in a foreign country, with no country of her own, and suffering herself many medical problems. She found a way to come to America to get medical help in the Boston area, and later was able, through much efforts on the part of many people, to receive a permanent residence in this nation, which she so much appreciated.
All this time, she knew what a monastery would do for its area, how much a monastery blesses a church and its country and its village, where it’s located. She always admired the monastic life, and herself thought to fulfill her dream to become a nun after the children were raised and she was now in her early 50s, having survived two World Wars and deportment from her country. She couldn’t go back to Romania to be a nun. That would be very easy; there are many monasteries in Romania. You know that. But she had to go, because there are no monasteries in America, and [none] English-speaking. There was a convent on the West Coast, a Russian Orthodox monastery, but Mother went to France to become a nun. While there, very much very much enjoyed her quiet monastic life, but something was driving her [further], more, not to stop there, but to come back to America because she wanted to give this country a gift, a gift for taking her in and giving her a home when she was a woman without a country.
So she came to Western Pennsylvania, just a 40-minute drive from here and started, as you know, the Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Monastery in Ellwood City. It wasn’t easy, and she had many struggles even in the monastery and even trying to begin Orthodox monastic life in a country that wasn’t so interested in it nor believed in it or even believed it existed, but she did it and made this gift to America.
Now it’s nearly 50 years later since she started our monastery, and I think—I’m putting words into her mouth, but hopefully she’s praying for us and inspiring these words—I think she would like to tell us at this time in our lives, in this area, three things. I think she would like to say to us, first of all: Don’t be afraid. Have courage. You have the Truth. You are Orthodox. You have the fullness of the faith. Why are you so timid? Why isn’t the church packed? Why aren’t more people knowing about Orthodoxy? Why aren’t more people coming in? Why are we so timid? Don’t be afraid, and as Queen Marie, her mother, said, “Life loves the brave.” Let’s rejoice that we have the faith. Let’s not be proud of it, but let’s invite others in.
I think she would also say: Don’t be afraid. I also lived in tragic times. I know very well what it is for a bomb to go off. Many bombs went off in her lifetime, over her head. She knows the fear that can surround us when society seems to be crumbling, and there is nothing darker than the years of Communism which kept her own country so devastated and the Church so broken. She knows tragedy, but she also knew faith, and she faced tragedy head-on. She faced danger head-on, and she tells us: Don’t be afraid. She herself suffered much pain, much physical pain in her life, all her life. She suffered emotional pain, and don’t we know what that is in our time and in our place! Most of us bear emotional pain if not physical pain. She also suffered deep hurt from her family members. In particular she had a great love, and she and her mother were very, very strongly bonded, spiritually, emotionally, and she was kept from seeing her mother on her deathbed by her own brother, who wouldn’t let her re-enter her country of Romania at that time when her mother was dying.
She knows how to forgive. She knew how to suffer. She was even mocked and ridiculed in starting our monastery. She looked like a crazy woman. She bought a property of 100 acres. There was not a building. There was not a room. There was not a roof. Just this. What does a princess know about building a monastery, and what can she do? She wasn’t afraid. She was courageous. “Life loves the brave.” And she did it.
And she wasn’t discouraged because it didn’t go so well or so easily in those beginning years. But all of us know that. Nothing is easy in the beginning. Everything God wants us to do: Do we really want to do this, or is this just a nice idea? So the Lord waits. You want to do it? Then you have to work for it. And she did.
I think the second thing she would say, now that she’s gotten us a little more brave… She would say to us: Join together. Christ said, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.” Pray for one another. Work together. Don’t criticize each other. Sure, we’re different, even within Orthodoxy. We’re different, but that’s so beautiful. That’s not wrong. It just shows that the Lord has a great variety in all his creation. Look outside at the trees this evening. Every tree’s a little different; every leaf is a little different; and every one of us is a little different. So our expression of Orthodoxy. We have the fullness of the faith in Orthodoxy, all the teachings of the saints, and we can express it differently. We have to not look down on each other or each other’s ways, not criticize but join together. Don’t compete, don’t be jealous, but respect each other.
By the time she founded our monastery 50 years ago, the idea of one Orthodox Church in this nation was very strong, and the idea of everyone coming together in a pan-Orthodox manner had great hope. She founded our monastery, thank God, with that tone, with that mission, with that focus, that we would be pan-Orthodox, and we always have been. I thank God, because if we were a Romanian Orthodox monastery, there wouldn’t be any of us there, because we’re not Romanian. She knew she didn’t need to start a Romanian monastery. She knew she needed to start a monastery for Americans, and insisted it be in English from day one, and that everyone would be welcomed. She welcomed all the clergy, and we still continue to do that and have the blessing to do that, and how blessed we are, too, because we don’t have to rely on a very small group of a diocese or something, but we can invite all the priests to serve us.
I think she would also say to us, as we look at other Christians: Don’t be afraid of them, either. I grew up in the Orthodox Church, and when I have to go or am invited to go to a non-Orthodox service in another Christian church, I’m not extremely comfortable at all. I’m very uncomfortable, but I was able to go with her, and I could see how she could move in those circles. Her mother was an Anglican; her father was Roman Catholic. Her own children are Catholic. She was a daughter of the king and queen of Romania; all the children, the constitution says, would be raised Orthodox. So she could move in those circles. But not only could she move in them, she could also respect them.
As Christianity—I’m not talking about [just] Orthodox Christianity—becomes smaller, suppressed, even fought against in our nation and in our culture, it’s time for us to join together with other Christians. I remember growing up when a Catholic friend or cousin of mine was not, didn’t, couldn’t come to an Orthodox service, unless it was a funeral. This is really true in our own lifetime. Now, thank God, we don’t have that kind of restriction, but I think we as Orthodox recognize we have the truth, we have the fullness, but let’s embrace our Christian brothers and sisters because we cannot tear down Christianity from within by competing. We can respect them. They have a portion of the truth. We can teach them the fullness and love them, because our nation needs more Christians joined together rather than more and more divisions. I think that’s a little change since she started our monastery, but I really think it’s necessary. We live in a post-Christian society, and we must respect all Christians and join and work with them and understand and share what we have with them.
The third thing I think she would say to us is: Be fruitful. Be fruitful and multiply. Labor and work. She was a lady who knew how to work. You read—we have downstairs for sale a book called Royal Monastic that describes her whole life, and you won’t believe you’re reading a book about one person, she did so many things. You’re sure that when you read that, it must be three or four people you’re reading about. She only lived to be 82, so there’s a lot that she did: started a monastery, a hospital, and all kinds of things.
Do what you can. Use the gifts that God gave to you, and multiply them. Build on those gifts. Do what you can, each of you, in your own place, where you’re planted, where God put you. Probably he’s not asking you: “Go to Romania and start a monastery,” but he’s asking you to do something. She had great courage, and she would take the smallest talent and develop it. She painted icons. She carved. She did embroidery. Near the end of her life, just months before she died—we didn’t know she was dying, that close to death—Communism fell, and the American news broke the story of how many children were suffering in orphanages from AIDS. She mustered up all the strength she had to make a trip halfway across the world to go back to Romania because she wanted to help those children in the orphanage. She was one of the foundresses of [the] Christiana Society, which was to help those orphans suffering from AIDS. I don’t think she knew much about AIDS. I don’t think she knew much about starting an orphanage, but she was going to go there and do something.
I think she would tell us: Don’t stand still. Don’t be stagnant. Don’t slip backwards, and slip into oblivion. You’ve got something to do. God has given you some talent, whatever it is—to read, to cook, to sing, to invite others to your house, to make a nice garden where people can find the peace of God, whatever it is—do it, and multiply in your families, your parishes, and your monasteries. I think most of our churches in western Pennsylvania are beautiful, but they’re rather empty nowadays. Well, there’s many reasons for that. Economics, certainly; lots of young people moved away, but we have a lot fewer children nowadays. Because we’re so convinced that everything has to be in its proper place, we’re afraid to have more than 1.2 children.
So I think she would tell families: Let your love bring children into the world, and if you trust in God, maybe they won’t have every electronic device, every toy, but if you breathe into them the breath of God’s love and teach them that, they’ll have everything they need and they will find their life. I think she would tell our parishes: You’ve got to work together, pray together, and love each other. And our monasteries—what would she say to us? Welcome one another, welcome everyone in Christ’s name, because that’s why you’re here. We do the prayers, we have the services, but the doors are open, and many people come, and I think she’s praying many more. What else do we need but a special, quiet, holy place, in a very secular time?
I think she’s praying because more people come, and people, pilgrims, are more and more serious. Families come, and all kinds of professional people, and everybody. People from Ellwood City come because they’re drawn to taste and see what it is there, and they come back. I’ll tell you down in the hall later, because so many people come, we had to build an addition to our building. So take some risk! Join together. Move forward. This is where God planted you. Don’t waste your life. Do something. Glorify God. You’ve got the truth. Don’t be afraid. Let’s get moving.
Why did she do it herself? Leave that life of royalty, give it all away, found a monastery in America? I’m sure she’ll be known as the foundress of women’s monasteries in America, because now we have many monasteries. That wasn’t true 50 years ago. She had the courage, and I think she could do all that, even though she was a princess and could have lived a quiet, retired life, I think she did it because she found a peace that passes all understanding.
She found the pearl of great price. And you don’t keep something like that to yourself. It’s only good, it’s only blessed, and it’s only going to multiply when you share it. Her dream was to share it through a monastic community where she herself physically planted a cross. The first thing that was put in the ground in Ellwood City was a cross marking the place where the altar would be consecrated, the church would be built, and where prayers would be said, morning and night, every day, for this spiritually impoverished nation. Amen.
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