Teva Regule interviews Sister Aemiliane of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross Monastery, Thebes, Greece. Originally published in the St. Nina Quarterly, Volume 3, No. 4.
Teva: First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time for this interview and sharing your thoughts with the readers of The St. Nina Quarterly. You are originally from Kansas and came to Boston to pursue graduate studies in education at Harvard University. While in Boston, you were received into the Orthodox Church. Would you tell us about your journey to the Church – what attracted you to Orthodoxy.
Sister Aemiliane: I knew nothing about Orthodoxy growing up. I was friends with Mary Ford, now a professor at St. Tikhon’s [Orthodox Seminary in South Canaan, Penn.] who was the first person to tell me about Orthodoxy. She was studying theology and literature at that time and was able to explain some things to me about the difference in theology – what Orthodox theology is and what the West says theology is.
Orthodox theology seemed to me so obviously more adequate, natural, and just… true. There were other things that I didn’t understand, didn’t like, or was repelled by, but one thing that I understood was that these people knew about prayer. They knew about the connection between the mind and the body. Those were enough to interest me. I still had an attract/repel relationship with the Church. I had to turn inside out in order to enter the Church.
T.: Can you elaborate on that?
S.A.: I had all the fashionable feminist conceptions of my age, education, and culture. I found that these very much restricted what I was able even to see and hear in the Church. For instance, I was offended by the thought that only men can be priests and, walking into a church, I didn’t even see that the Panagia [all holy, Mary] was the biggest thing in the Church. She is the first thing we see. On the iconostasis both Christ and the Panagia are present and are the same size. Anyone else is smaller and farther away. She is beside Christ. I didn’t hear the prayers in which you cannot end a prayer without saying, “… remembering our Most Holy Lady…” You can’t even say a prayer without calling the Panagia to mind. But I didn’t hear that. I was so busy with my ideas about what it would mean if women were suppressed or honored or whatever.
Another blindness had to do not only with my constructs but with the Church itself – what it is like in America . I was all busy with the fact that women can’t go in the altar, when the fact is that no one can go in the altar unless they have a reason and a blessing to do so. When I was in the Holy Land on a pilgrimage, I noticed that the Panagia’s tomb is the altar of a church. The pilgrims are passing by – in it, in front of it, through it, kissing it. When it comes time for the Liturgy, that stops for the brief time of the service, and then it continues [after the service.] You go to the tomb of Christ and the tomb itself is the table of preparation – the piece of stone that was sealing the tomb is the altar. The pilgrims are passing in and venerating the tomb of Christ, and the rock becomes the altar during the Liturgy. In Bethlehem, the altar is built over the star that is embedded in the floor of the place of the Nativity. There is no iconostasis. I was in the cave for the Christmas Liturgy right in with the star – there was nothing between me and it. Pilgrims enter, venerate the star, falling on their faces, and then grab onto the altar table to pull themselves up. My trip to the Holy Land radically changed my whole experience of everything.
From the Holy Land I went to Greece, where I visited my first women’s monastery (there were almost none in America at that time). In a women’s monastery, not only do the nuns serve in the altar, but you see the nuns taking the blessing of the abbess – as well as lay people, men and women. Even priests and monks take the blessing of the abbess or nuns. I then began to realize that all this stuff that I had in my head [regarding hierarchy and patriarchy] was not applicable. And was in large part blown out of proportion by the unnatural state of the Church in America, made up almost entirely of parishes with very few, if any, monasteries.
This is quite in addition to the fact that when speaking of power issues with Christ and the Holy Spirit we have everything upside down. The beatitudes are the reversal of all the categories and of all secular ambitions, values, and interpretations of what good is and what power is, what strength is; the secular and political assumptions of what is important are all upside down.
In addition, although already in the Orthodox Church at the time, I didn’t receive all the sensations that I had expected from what I thought was a hierarchical, liturgical church. I think that was also because of the way the space is used in an Orthodox church. Everything is included. Icons are everywhere – behind you, in front of you, to the side, above you. The incense is everywhere. You don’t have a linear or vertical perception of things.
T.: In the summer of 1981, two walkways collapsed at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, killing 114 people and injuring many others. You were severely injured when you were trapped by the fallen beams and debris. I was actually in Boston that summer (prior to relocating to the area) and I remember praying for someone named, Melanie [Sister Aemiliane]. I didn’t think I would ever meet you in person.
Would you tell us about that experience and your subsequent recovery?
S.A.: I had a burst fracture of the third lumbar vertebra. My spinal cord was badly twisted and crushed with pieces of bone sticking in it. The initial X-rays compelled the X-ray technicians to jump up and down in amazement when they saw that I had sensation, because the X-rays showed a huge piece of bone right where the spinal cord is, indicating that my spinal cord was almost undoubtedly severed. It wasn’t, but I was paralyzed from the waist down. I had a bunch of ribs broken, a compound fracture of the ankle, my lung collapsed….
T.: And yet, here you are today.
S.A.: The first part of recovery was being extracted from the rubble. Many people died who were not hurt as badly as I was, because they couldn’t get them out in time. (This is what is happening now in Turkey and Athens [The recent earthquakes in these areas]. There are people who are experiencing what it is to be buried alive or just crushed and killed.) It was impossible for others to get to me. And it was impossible for me to be extracted in time to survive.
T.: Do you remember that?
S.A.: Yes, I do – in detail. I remember that I was crushed – bent over with my face between my knees. I couldn’t move anything except my right hand slightly from side to side. There was not enough room even to breathe – there were sixty tons on top of me. My knees broke my ribs. At some point my sister pulled on my right hand but couldn’t move me. Then, at some point I spoke to my guardian angel: “Where are you?” I felt my right hand clasped, without pulling, and then I was out. I was lying on my back, totally free of the rubble. Someone I did not recognize was holding me and told me that I would be OK. No one remembers seeing this person.
T.: This experience must have affected your life in many ways. How did it affect your spiritual life?
S.A.: The fact of the virgin birth, in which Christ came out of the womb without destroying virginity, without pain. The fact of the Resurrection, in which He rose from the tomb without moving the rock. It was sealed until the angel moved it away. The fact of the experience of the disciples when they were in the upper room and the doors were shut, but Christ came in – not as a spirit or as a metaphor or phantom, but in His flesh. He ate and drank. The disciples stuck their fingers in His wounds. This was all made very real to me. This is not because I am something. It is because of the prayer of holy persons who have purified their hearts by incredible commitment, by scathing honesty before their father confessor, themselves, and God, by humbling themselves to the extreme and becoming like Christ – full of Christ. It is nothing more than a witness to that – to the power of prayer, the power of the love of God, which is resurrection and life. It is the fact of the resurrection.
T.: How did you decide to follow the monastic way of life?
S.A.: Although I didn’t think about it at the time logically, the whole of my life was as broken as my back. The whole of my life was as paralyzed as my body. 114 people were killed. So what matters after that? What could bear that much meaning? What could express or feel that much, as to include a connection forever with all those people, all those souls? Only living for them and for everyone. At that point, my studies lost whatever meaning they had. I got well. I could do anything – marry, have a career. A year after the accident, if you just saw me, you wouldn’t have been able to tell [that I had been so seriously injured]. The doctors are still totally mystified about it and they openly admit it. They had told my parents that I might not live, but if I lived, I would never walk. And then I received Holy Communion on the eighth day [after the accident], and I moved my whole left foot. So they said, “We don’t know, maybe she will walk, but it will be a year in the hospital with braces and canes.” I left after three months – with a body brace, but with no braces on my legs, and with two canes. So my doctor in Kansas City said and still says that, “We never could explain you, we can’t and that is it.” So, I could do anything, but I didn’t care enough about any career to give myself to it. Nothing in the secular life meant enough to me. In that moment no doctor, no scientist, no social worker, no psychologist, no member of my family, no loved one, no friend – nothing – could help me; all the technology in the world wasn’t enough to have saved me. And the others died.
Nine months later I was still in great need after all that had happened and with everything black in front of me. I came to Holy Cross [Seminary in Brookline , Mass. ] for confession with a Hieromonk from Holy Mountain, Fr. Dionysios (He had been invited to the seminary by Archbishop Iakovos during all of Great Lent to offer guidance to the students and faculty). I am still eating the spiritual bread he gave me at that moment. Some months later, he sent me a picture of his Elder, Archimandrite Aemilianos, Abbot of Simonos Petras Monastery, Mt. Athos. I was totally shocked. I recognized his likeness as the one who pulled me out from under the tons of debris after the accident. Then I knew. What saved me was the prayer of the Elder Aemilianos – someone who was on the other side of the world in his monastery without ever having set foot in America, in the flesh. There was no reason why he should or could know me. I had heard of him and his spiritual son, my Elder, Dionysios, but had no idea I could ever meet them. After that, I found out that the day of the accident was his namesday – 18 July, the feast day of St. Aemilianos the martyr. So it became clear to me in my very blood and broken bones, without this being at all, ever, an analytical thought, that the prayer of a pure – purified! – heart is the most powerful thing in the cosmos.
By the way, on the old calendar, on the Holy Mountain, it was 5 July, which is the feast day of St. Athanasios the Athonite, the father of cenobitic [communal] monasticism on Mount Athos in the tenth century. Many times we do an all-night vigil on 5 July to celebrate this feast. At the beginning we start reading about the life of St. Athanasios. Every year we only get part way through. By that time that part is finished in Orthros, or (if we are reading it during the meal) the meal is finished. I had never read the end. The “end” of the story is that St. Athanasios the Athonite was killed by the collapse of a new building.
I then saw the icon of the guardian angel (here, in Boston, at the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration), on which is written a prayer from Compline that says, “Take me by my wretched and outstretched hand….”
When the structure of things is wrong or increasingly inadequate, the only hope is to break it all apart and then it can be restructured – a new creation. Gerontas [Elder] Aemilianos said to me sometime much later that God prepares and provides in the life of every person a “Hyatt” that is the bridge to the new life.
T.: You first joined a large monastery in Greece, Ormilia, a sister monastery to one on Mount Athos – under the spiritual direction of the Elder Aemilianos. You were in a new country with a different culture and language. Would you tell us of your experience living and praying in that environment?
S.A.: Yes. It was paradise. It’s true that it was hard work. It was work to learn Greek and everything else. But Gerontas Aemilianos said to me, “Exile is a very heavy work.” You can become a monk or a nun without undertaking exile. Becoming a stranger in terms of country and culture is not necessarily part of it. But it is in some cases. So he said, xeniteia, exile, is a very heavy work. So then, when I sometimes felt tired, I thought, “Well of course I am tired, it’s natural, it is a very heavy work.” He saved me in this way, as in many other ways.
T.: You are now part of a new, international women’s monastery outside of Athens in Thebes – the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The community includes women from many different parts of the world – Romania, Russia, Britain, South Africa, Israel, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Greece, and the United States. In what ways do the various cultural backgrounds of the community influence your lives together?
S.A.: It is Pentecost all the time – we have a continual feast of Pentecost. The different languages make it abundantly clear that communication is not absolutely dependent on language nor is miscommunication largely a matter language. It has mainly to do with the clarity of heart, the honesty, the humility, and the sacrifice of the people involved in the communication.
T.: Do you learn things from them because they come from so many different backgrounds?
S.A.: All the time – every day, every month. It is like a mosaic. There is such beauty and such possibilities, such talent, such strengths that are cultural and these all come together. It sounds like a stereotype, but our Abbess is German and she is a very good administrator. She has a mind “like a computer,” but she has a heart and spirit first. So when you see this kind of strength, which is common from her culture, when you put this kind of power under and at the disposal of and at the direction of the spirit and of obedience and of a humble heart, then you have an incredible thing. It is not just being an administrator. If this power is at the service of the heart, then you have miracles happening all the time. In our monastery it is impossible to go on our natural charisms, because the thing wouldn’t hold together for five minutes. But if someone is there in the Holy Spirit, humbling herself and repenting all the time for her sins, which are the things that divide one from the other people and make it impossible for us to live together, then the whole thing turns into something divine.
T.: Are there advantages to being a monastic in an Orthodox country?
S.A.: Oh, yes. The simple people from the village teach us what we are and who we are by their expectations, by their holy hearts, by their faith, which is just mind-boggling, by their humility, by their gratitude – especially since so many of us are converts from Western countries who have not grown up in the Church. When you hear the immediate reactions and incredible sensitivity, from someone who may not even be a college graduate – in order to orient what I want to say according to the assumptions and values of western culture – then you say, “Wow!” You realize that this is from this culture of prayer, the courtesy, the kindness, the sensitivity which is from centuries of life in the Church. There is a spontaneous piety totally without affectation. For example, I remember my mind being blown away as a convert when I was in a village in Greece at the very beginning and I was walking along the street and an adolescent boy was coming around the corner on his bicycle. He was steering with his left hand and making the sign of the cross with his right hand because he was going around the church. It was totally natural with every motion baptized with grace.
T.: Based on your experience in helping to build a new monastery in Greece , what advice do you have for establishing and building up monastic communities in the U.S. (or other non-majority Orthodox countries)?
S.A.: This is a burning issue. I think Fr. Sophrony (a great elder from England, a saint – holy monastic of our time who very much loved both my geronta, Dionysios and his geronta, Aemilianos) said to me (although I didn’t have enough experience to even formulate the question at the time), “The Orthodox monastery is organically related to its surroundings, and so,” he said, “the very same Tradition – the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church – when it is in a Western, non-Orthodox country, will look very different and its forms will seem very different than in a traditional Orthodox country – in order to be the same. In order to be that same genuine Orthodox monasticism.”
When he said this to me, I didn’t have any idea where to connect this or where to apply it.
Now at that time Fr. Sophrony was already going on ninety years old and frail. In addition, it was winter. I was sent to him by my Elder and he knew that and accepted me, and when he finished counseling me he said, “Now we are going to go to my cell and we are going to walk like this (arm and arm). This way, if anyone sees us they will hesitate to approach.”
I didn’t find anything strange in that. I was very honored and happy because when you are near someone who is holy you feel very happy. We set off. As we were going along. I said, “Can you give me an example of what you just said, about how Orthodox Monasticism is different in a non-Orthodox country?”
And he says to me, with a slightly indignant – as in “Obviously!” – and emphatic tone, “Well! In Greece we could never walk like this.” At that time, I had never been to Greece . It is true. It is just unthinkable. And what this means to me now, in relation to your question, is that you can’t take a Greek or Russian monastery and just put it lock, stock and barrel someplace else. The meaning of Fr. Sophrony’s words is very, very powerful. If you have a carbon copy from one context placed in a different context, then almost by that very fact, you are deforming the Tradition. I realize that that may be taken as an extremely radical thing to say. But it means that the rare virtue of diakrisis, discretion, is necessary. You can be an actual saint and yet not happen to have that particular virtue, as far as I understand. Yet only with this virtue can it be distinguished in the Holy Spirit what must be rejected, what can and must be baptized, what corresponds to and serves and expresses living Tradition.
T.: As a monastic, what do you see as some of the important issues facing women in the Church today?
S.A.: In the Holy Land, for instance, it becomes clear that to be a Christian is more and more like it was in the beginning to be a Christian. I think what we have to realize is that Christianity is counter-cultural. It is radically different. It is a continual change of mind. It is continual repentance, a continual sobriety which challenges even the most fashionable and almost universally accepted presuppositions and values of our cultures and times. Everything around is not necessarily able to be incorporated into the life of the Spirit. We are a little flock – a dynamic leaven. The Lord says to us, “Fear not little flock.” We have to not be afraid to be different, not afraid to be looked down on, misunderstood, and even be ridiculed or suffer for being different.
T.: Once again, I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts, experiences, and feelings with our readers. You have given us much to reflect upon.
Interview: 12 September 1999. Published in the St. Nina Quarterly, Volume 3, No. 4.