We were welcomed at the Monastery by a Sister whose name means ‘One created by God’. As she herself said, it is the most difficult name of all the sisters – hence I can’t even begin to write it for you here! She was delightful and invited us first to visit the Church. It is a small Church, separated into three sections inside – as is usual for Churches/Chapels in many Orthodox Monasteries. The area at the back (often called the Narthex) is where visitors will sit/stand during Services. The next section in is where the members of the Community sit and stand, and then the final section – at the front of the Church – is usually ‘hidden’ behind the Iconostasis – a screen on which many icons are either hung or painted. It has three openings, across which curtains hang, and behind this will be the altar at which Holy Communion is celebrated, also on which the Gospels reside, as well as the Tabernacle for the Reserved Sacrament. (Reserved Sacrament is bread and wine that has been consecrated by the priest during a Service of Holy Communion, but that has been kept rather than being consumed in order that it may be taken to those who are sick and who are unable to come to Church. As, through the Prayer of Consecration, it is believed by many that the Real Presence of Christ is now in the bread and wine it is also kept in some Churches to be used in acts of devotion where the bread will be placed into a monstrance and the people will pray before it, believing that they are in the presence of Christ. If the container in which the bread and wine are kept is on the altar, it is called a Tabernacle, and if it is a smaller ‘cupboard’ in the wall, it is called an Aumbry. Lesson over!)
We were able to explore all of the Church – and to look behind the central curtain (Royal Entrance) of the Iconostasis to see the Gospel Book on the Altar, as well as the Tabernacle. Interestingly, the Tabernacle is empty as the Church is not yet complete and therefore not yet dedicated. Although the structure, seating, candelabra and flooring are complete, the decoration of the walls is not. As is usual in Orthodox Churches, there will be many images of many saints that will adorn the walls. At present, only the apse is decorated. The Community have been on this site since the year 2,000 – and they do all of the work themselves, using traditional methods for the wall paintings and icons, so it is a lengthy and painstaking process. In fact, everything is done by the Sisters, from milking the cows to wielding a power drill to bring down walls in the process of refurbishment and building.
Following the visit to the Church, we passed through (snow flakes!) the dining room in to the and were shown into the Guestroom of the Monastery. After the unheated Church the Guestroom was toasty and warm which was a blessing as snow had begin to fall as we made our way from the Church to the main house! The central heating was bolstered by an open fire and we were treated to home-made biscuits along with mountain tea. Whoever made the biscuits deserves a medal as the Community marks Lent with particular attention to self-denial – so these biscuits will have no chance of being eaten by any of the Sisters! We heard of the work that is undertaken by the Sisters – all sorts of things – beginning with praying the Office – going on to building further rooms in the Monastery, painting these rooms, welcoming guests, study, personal prayer, taking cows to the abattoir, preparing cheese, helping out people in the village (for all sorts of needs – assistance with medicines as one of the sisters is a trained nurse, help a family after there was a fire at their home etc. etc.), spinning wool, weaving mats and carpets, cooking, looking after bees to collect honey as well as use the wax for candles. All the things of daily life – with a few more thrown in besides…
Following the time of conversation in the Guestroom, we descended on the shop – to much hilarity as we tried to decipher what the labels on things said. On sale were a whole host of items: teas made from herbs grown by the Sisters, as well as other food/drink items: pasta, cheese, meats, yoghurt, herbal Tonic drinks (that used to be made with blood – but as the community is vegetarian theirs most definitely isn’t!), balsamic vinegar, jams and the like. There are also Prayer Ropes – with either the traditional thirty-three knots (for the number of years that Jesus lived) or one or two hundred. For each knot, one recites the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Of course, a rope is not obligatory, but it helps to keep the mind focussed as the knots of the rope pass through the fingers. All of the ropes for sale, as well as other devotional items are made by the members of the Community which, at present, number twenty Sisters, four of whom are Novices. With a general rule that those who join must be over twenty-four and under fifty years of age, and a number of young vocations, the average age of the Sisters is in the lower forties.
There was real interest in the life of the Sisters, and the way in which they understand God to have called them to live. The Sister we met spoke with clarity, wisdom and understanding of the life of a Religious – a life unknown to so many people as they have never visited a Monastery (Convent) or met a Monk or Nun. The humour, devotion, sense and insight with which this Sister spoke endeared her to many within in the Group who had never been to a place like this. Having mentioned to a few members of the group that many moons ago I tested my vocation as a Religious with the Benedictine Community that was at that time based at Burford Priory, but is now to be found at Mucknell Abbey, I have spent the ensuing time answering questions about what ‘they’ do all day and why they do it. I spent three years in Community learning about faith, prayer, life, love, obedience (!), forgiveness, charity (usually others for me)… and so much more. Having met the Sisters at the Community of Saint John the Forerunner yesterday, and been able to answer some of the questions of the members of the this Group, I hope many of them will be encouraged to explore and discover whether there are any communities near them who they could visit.
The nerve-racking, nail-biting, fear-of-heights-manic-panic-moment-inducing journey up the mountain side was so worth it for so many of us, I can’t begin to tell you!