Monday, December 17, 2007

The Monastic Tonsuring of Sister Vicki

Dear Parish Faithful,

It was a deeply-felt joy to be present and to participate in the tonsuring of Sister Vicki as a rassophore nun on the Feast Day of St. Herman of Alaska (December 13). This took place in the chapel of at the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA, the home of Sister Vicki's new monastic community. Sister Vicki spent over twenty years as a teacher, and then made the life-changing decision to test her possible monastic vocation in 2002. She then returned home briefly to distribute her earthly goods before returning permanently to the monastery in the Fall of 2003. And now she is committed to being an Orthodox nun! It is always a great blessing for any given parish community when a priest or monastic emerges from its enclosure to pursue one of these worthy vocations within the life of the Church. We are now assured that Sister Vicki and perhaps the entire sisterhood is holding up our community before God in prayer on a daily basis. We also have a place of pilgrimage brought much more readily to our attention with one of our former parishoners and close friends in residence there. And we now have a living example of someone who has freely chosen to follow Christ with a love and intensity that is so lacking in our contemporary world. I am not quite sure how to put it, but for me it is deeply satisfying, as a parish priest, that a monastic has come forth from our parish community, and that however modest my contribution, I was a small part of that process. Having said that, I will also admit to missing Sister Vicki's presence among us! Her commitment, encouragment, obedience and love for Christ were always in clear evidence through her helpfulness here when she was a parishoner for a little over ten years.

There were three of us present for her tonsuring, for Dan Georgescu - our driver - and Shirley Leara were part of our parish delegation to the monastery. It is about a five - six hour trip to the monastery. When we first arrived, the air was crisp and the sky clear, as Shirley pointed out the lovely spectacle of a vast and starry sky made a bit brighter in the darker rural setting of the monastery. We went straight to the church for we arrived as the Vigil for St. Herman was being served. Splendid as the evening was, it was wonderful to enter the warmly inviting atmosphere of the monastery chapel. With its many beautiful ceiling frescoes, seasonal vestments and colors, softly-burning candles, and the reverent singing and chanting of the nuns, all expressing the presence of God, the church as the ark of salvation and true home of the believer was vividly apparent to us. The well-known theologian and author, Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, was the celebrant, as he retired to a home near the monastery and now serves in the chapel on a regular basis. We were in time for the anointing and distribution of blessed bread during the chanting of the Canon prescribed for Matins. Following the service, we were able to chat briefly with Sister Vicki and the other mothers and sisters of the community.

The Feast of St. Herman beginning the next morning was most splendid. We began with the chanting of a superb akathist hymn in honor of St. Herman's "great deeds" in North America, followed by the third and sixth hours and then the tonsuring of Sister Vicki. This relatively short rite included the chanting of appropriate psalms by Sister Vicki; a prayer for her new status as a rassophore nun; the "tonsuring," or cutting, of some of her hair, symbolic of offering her whole life up to God in repentance and service; and her clothing in some more of the monastic clothing as this has developed over the centuries. In addition to her black monastic rassa, Sister Vicki now wears a new headpiece with veil, a pleated mantia (when she reads the Scriptures in the Liturgy), and an elaborately tied scarf that covers her head and shoulders peculiar to Romanian Orthodox monasticism. Sister Vicki was "clothed" by Mother Christophora, the abbess of the monastery. The service was perfomed by Fr. Alexander Culter, the igumen of St. John the Evangelist Monastery in Hiram, OH, and now Sister Vicki's spiritual father. Only a hieromonk, or monk-priest, may serve at the tonsuring of another monastic. When Fr. Alexander read aloud a final admonition to her about obedience in all things to her abbess, and the need for humility and self-sacrifice, I leaned over to Fr. Tom and whispered: "That's rough." He responded: "Yes, but that's the Gospel!" The Divine Liturgy then followed, with three of us concelebrating.

Asked to speak a few words in honor of Sister Vicki's tonsuring, I began by sending the heartfelt greetings and best wishes from the parish as a whole. I told everyone present that it probably would not come as a surprise if I further mentioned that Sister Vicki was like my "right arm" while a parishoner at Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit - totally committed, quietly zealous, obedient, encouraging and helpful. And that, as much as I rejoice in her new-found vocation, it was initally disorienting, as "losing" her was something like having my right arm severed! But we continue to remain very close and I am sure that that will continue for the years to come. I was struck by the peacefulness and serenity that was clearly present in Sister Vicki. This was most obvious, of course, in her face, which had a certain inner glow about it. This has always been true to some extent in Sister Vicki, but it has evidently been enhanced and even magnified in her new monastic life. I shared this with Fr. Tom, who responded by saying that Sister Vicki has been a most welcome addition to the community;that she is always quietly on the move and doing her work; and that she is somehow just "there" at all times. Sister Vicki has found God and her earthly vocation - a dual gift that sadly eludes many, many people.

A warm meal was shared by everyone in the trapeza following the Liturgy. Truly a feast, for we had shrimp in honor of St. Herman! Shirley presented Sister Vicki with some practical gifts for daily life, and I presented Mother Christophora with a check in honor of Sister Vicki's tonsuring from the parish. After a visit to the enticing monastery gift shop we left for home, having spent an extensively short, but intensively filled, amount of time at the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration. Dan made the trip home thoroughly enjoyable by sharing with us from his impressive CD collection of Orthodox hymnography from a variety of traditions.

When, in the providential will of God, Sister Vicki is tonsured further into the monastic life with the taking of the distinctively monastic vows, in a more elaborate and fuller service, I am hoping that we will be able to make the trip with yet a larger body of the parish faithful. For now, let us always remember Sister Vicki in our prayers as she surely remembers us.

Fr. Steven

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