Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Blessed Event ~ The Tonsure of Mother Paula

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Our beloved former parishioner and friend in Christ, Sister Vicki Bellas, is now Mother Paula. This was the new name, signifying a "second baptism," conferred on her, and revealed for the first time to the assembled body of the faithful, in the rite of monastic tonsure. (Only Mother Christophora and Sister Vicki knew of this name before the tonsuring). This blessed event occurred this last Monday on the Feast Day of St. Herman of Alaska, December 13, at the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA. Despite the very real threat of severe winter weather, there were still ten persons - or pilgrims - from our parish who were there to participate. Besides Presvytera Deborah and myself, we were joined by Dan and Cristiana Georgescu; Mickey, Alexis and Analisa Calender; Roberta Robedeau; Jeannie Markvan; and Elena Drach. With the exception of some turbulence on the return trip along the more northerly route, the weather remained stable and the roads were clear. As Presvytera Deborah said: The Lord opened up the road for us! Perhaps through the prayers of Blessed Herman of Alaska ...

 This was a truly remarkable event in which the grace of God was palpably present. The depth of commitment on the part of a monastic - a monk or nun - is not only deeply impressive; it is almost "frightening" in its implications. For a worldly-minded person, it can only seem to be insane. The monastic is an ascetic and a cross-bearer in the spirit of the Gospel. She or he must fulfill the words of the Apostle Paul, that "those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." And the monastic will further say with the Apostle: "the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (GAL. 5:24; 6:14) This is no escape from the pressures and disappointments of "real life" in the world; but rather a conscious decision to move as deeply as humanly possible into the mystery of Christ crucified and risen within the "real life" of the Church. The monastic recognizes his or her sinfulness and the depth of separation from God caused by sin. Therefore, the heart of the monastic life is continual repentance and return to God in the spirit of humility. All self-justification, rationalization and denial must be abandoned and replaced by the simple and heartfelt words from the parable of the prodigal son: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." (LK. 15:21) However, this is not the gloom and doom of the perpetual penitent, but the "joy-creating sorrow" (St. John Klimakos) of a child of God whose infirmities have been healed by the grace of God, and who has received that grace "unto the remission of sins." This is the gift of the "laughter of the soul" that St. John also refers to. Ultimately, it is the conscious acceptance of the gift of salvation in Christ.

We witnessed and in a sense participated in this movement of repentance and return to the compassionate Father in the rite of monastic tonsure. Sister Vicki actualized the return of the prodigal son to his father when she first entered the monastery chapel following the Little Entrance during the Liturgy. This is the point at which the monastic tonsure takes place. (The consecration of a bishop, and the ordination of a priest or deacon also takes place during the eucharistic Liturgy). Clothed in a simple white garment and with her long hair uncovered and flowing, she was led into the church by the other mothers and sisters of the monastic community. More specifically, she entered the church on her knees and "walked" the full distance toward the sanctuary on her knees, weeping for her sins - and accompanied by the weeping of many who were in the church at this highly emotional moment - while being covered by the protective monastic mantia (robe) of her spiritual mother, the abbess Mother Christophora. Mother Christophora explained this to be the "womb" from which Sister Vicki would emerge unto her new and "second birth" into the monastic life, again signified by her new name of Mother Paula. This movement toward the altar culminated in Sister Vicki fully prostrate on the ground in a cruciform position. When she arose before Hieromonk Alexander, the celebrant of the monastic tonsure, a dialogue took place between Fr. Alexander and Sister Vicki, initiated by a very pointedly formulated question: "Why have you come here, Sister, falling down before the Holy Altar and before this holy assembly?" And Sister Vicki responded: "I desire the life of asceticism, Reverend Father." The dialogue continued in this manner, and here I will record some key parts of it:

Father: Do you desire to be deserving of the Angelic Habit, and to be ranked in the choir of monastics?

Novice: Yes, with God's help, Reverend Father.

Father: Truly you have chosen a good and blessed work, but only if you live it to the very end, for good works are wrought in labor, and achieved in pain. ... Do you of your own free will and mind, come to the Lord?

Novice: Yes, with God's help, Reverend Father.

Father: Not by any necessity or constraint?

Novice: No, Reverend Father.

Father: Do you renounce the world, and all that is of the world, according to the command of God?

Novice: Yes, Reverend Father.

Father: Do you thus confess all these things with hope in the power of God, and do you agree to hold fast these promises to the end of your life, by the grace of Christ?

Novice: Yes, with God's help, Reverend Father.

Father: Will you endure all the difficulties and sorrows that the Monastic life will bring with it, for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven?

Novice: Yes, with God's help, Reverend Father.

After the appointed prayers, the monastic tonsure took place. Taking the special scissors that were placed upon the Gospel Book, Sister Vicki's hair was cut cross-wise by Father Alexander, with the words: "Our Sister, Paula, is shorn in the hair of her head as a sign of her renunciation of the world and all that is of the world, renouncing her self-will and all the desires of the flesh ..." (Her long hair will eventually be further cut, as I was informed).

This is followed by the "Giving of the Habit," which is the clothing of Mother Paula with her new monastic garments, lovingly sewed and prepared by the monastic community for this day. (We provided Mother Paula with her new monastic belt). Now clothed as a fully-tonsured monastic - the Angelic Habit - Mother Paula took her place in the front of the nave, participating in the remainder of the Divine Liturgy while holding a hand cross in one hand and a beautifully bound Gospel book in her other hand; for she must take up her cross and follow the precepts of the Lord as recorded in the Holy Gospel. I was graciously asked to be the head celebrant of the Liturgy on this memorable day - con-celebrating with Fr. Thomas Hopko - and I had the joyous blessing of being the first to administer Holy Communion to "the handmaiden of God, the nun Mother Paula ..."

All of us from our parish were profoundly moved during the entire service in which time, indeed, seemed to be suspended as we experienced the liturgical time - or perhaps timelessness - of the holy Liturgy. Knowing and loving Mother Paula as we do; rejoicing in her commitment to the monastic vocation; and sharing in this unforgettable experience with her; it could not possibly have been otherwise. I began my short homily following the Gospel by referring to the words of the Apostle Peter on Mt. Tabor in the presence of the transfigured Christ: "Lord, it is good to be here!" This moving experience was further deepened by a wonderful rite following the dismissal of the Liturgy. After venerating the Cross, each person present approached Mother Paula and asked her the question: "What is your name?" She responded by saying: "My name is Paula, a sinner." Each person then added: "Save yourself, and pray for me!" (This should also serve to help Mother Paula remember her new name!). We have some photographs from the Liturgy and tonsuring itself that we hope to eventually share with everyone in the parish

A wonderful meal followed the Liturgy in the trapeza, a meal "sponsored' by Mother Paula's deceased parents, Constantine and Akrevia, whose gift of inheritance to Mother Paula has been distributed as she now lives under the vow of personal poverty. We all had the opportunity to speak with Mother Paula a bit more in the relaxed and joyful atmosphere of this communal meal. The spirit of Blessed Fr. Herman of Alaska was present with us, as this was, again, the feast of his blessed repose in the Lord (Dec. 13). Following this festive meal, Mother Paula was to return and remain in the chapel for four full days, even sleeping there. That will surely test one's gift for stillness, self-examination and prayer! .

For us at Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit, it is more than meaningful that Mother Paula came from our parish. It is a true blessing, something more qualitative than quantitative. Mother Paula came to our parish in about 1991 and stayed with us for more than ten years. For those who were here during those years, we know of her faithfulness, commitment and love of Christ. We admired her sobriety and steadfastness. We appreciated her constant work for the well-being of the parish. We also remember that it was Vicki Bellas/Sister Vicki/Mother Paula who introduced us to the Hogar in Guatemala City. We were part of the process of her monastic vocation slowly working itself out in her mind and heart over those years. We encouraged her when the time came for her to fulfill that vocation. We always looked forward to her periodic visits to Cincinnati. We anticipate her visits to us in the future. We anticipate, also, our visits to the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration in the future. As Mother Paula will assuredly continue to pray for us we, in turn, must keep her in our prayers. May the Lord God bless and preserve her during her trials to come; and fill her with the joy and peace of the Kingdom of Heaven!

We praise and thank God for meeting good, wholesome Christian people in our lives; simple human beings who, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, make Christ present in a convincing manner. We believe this to be the case with Mother Paula, as we also strive to embody that same presence for others.

Fr. Steven