Orthodox America

  From The Bookshelf - Letters to a Beginner-on Giving One's Life to God, and A Collection of Letters to Nuns

Letters to a Beginner-on Giving One's Life to God by Abbess Thaisia, St. Xenia Skete Press, 1993, 106 pp., 

A Collection of Letters to Nuns by St. Anatoly, Holy Trinity Monastery, 1993, 308 pp.

Matushka Nancy Mirolovich

A spiritual daughter of St. John of Kronstadt, Abbess Thaisia was well known throughout Russia for her participation in the establishment of new convents and for her publications.  Among her works is a compilation of Letters to a Beginner in which she discusses the various stages of monastic life, from the decision to embark on the angelic path to the tonsure. In the first of her fourteen letters, Abbess Thaisia reminds the novice of the Lord's words: Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you.  Having been chosen, she advises, one's first task is to love everyone.  And, striving to love and forgive others, one must meanwhile attend diligently to one's own faults.  The reader at once recognizes here the teaching of countless Fathers of the Church who spoke to laymen and monastics alike. Throughout the remaining letters, this "spiritual mother of Holy Russia" outlines the temptations a novice is likely to encounter when she leaves the world.  Not surprisingly, they are the same temptations which befall those who live "in the world." With citations from Scripture and the Fathers, the abbess also presents an informative description of the origins of monasticism and some examples of early women's monasticism. A cursory list of the topics Abbess Thaisia presents to her beginner will not be unfamiliar to one who strives to attend to the Gospel virtues. Regarding obedience, Mother Thaisia tells two inspiring stories of obedient monks, the first of whom discovered "obedience never dies" and the second of whom received five heavenly crowns for his obedience.  The abbess reminds her beginner to look for a cause in herself when others seem unkind.  She warns of the sin of excess, especially concerning clothing. She reminds the nun to use speech only for necessity and profit.  She encourages her daughter to resist grumbling, as sorrows are inevitable. She discusses the need for patience in illness, the necessity of vigilance in prayer.  A practical matter Abbess Thaisia addresses is the duty of church singers to strive to create a prayerful atmosphere during the Divine Services so that the faithful will be aided, not hindered, as they offer their supplications to God.

While the last letter in this little book is entitled "On the Tonsure into Monasticism," even it is applicable to laymen.  As the nun, of her own free will, becomes the bride of Christ, so does every Christian, of his own free will, unite himself to Christ in holy Baptism.  Having willingly embarked upon a given path, therefore, each is responsible to keep to it as best he can.

Likewise, A Collection of Letters to Nuns, written by the elder of Optina, St. Anatoly, while directed to nuns, is replete with insights every Christian would do well to heed.  Indeed, most of St. Anatoly's admonitions are familiar to an attentive Orthodox soul, but the "reminders" are just the thing to jog one's conscience and pull one out of the lethargy into which daily cares lull the unsuspecting.

Repeatedly, St. Anatoly encourages the sisters to be humble, patient, silent, accepting, prayerful, obedient, watchful.  He discusses the spiritual value of tribulation, scorn, illness.  Although Father Anatoly himself responds to the many letters he receives from nuns, nevertheless he frequently refers them to their spiritual mothers.  To Sister I. he writes ". . . you do not know that the easiest and most saving thing of all is to disclose your thoughts.  So go [to Matushka], and say everything."

The 382 letters in this volume are headed, each with a summarizing title. These headings alone are instructive: "The Young Should Practice Oral Prayer"; "The Fast Is a Happy Time.  How One Who Is Physically Infirm Should Spend the Fast"; "You Reproach Others but Do Not Correct Yourself"; "What It Means to Save One's Soul"; "Do Not Feel Oppressed by Scoldings"; "Tribulations Are Our Glory.  The Path to Holiness Is Humility."   Father Anatoly is always frank when he writes, sometimes humorous, occasionally a little sarcastic, never superfluous.

While contemporary Orthodox Christians cannot make an annual pilgrimage to Optina to hear the saving counsels of the Elders, they have, at least, these letters and other writings to guide them.  Each thirsty soul can find many of its needs met and questions answered in these letters of St. Anatoly.

As The Ladder of Divine Ascent, The Arena, and many other works dedicated to nurturing the monastic life are recognized also as valuable "handbooks" for laymen, so can Letters to a Beginner and A Collection of Letters to Nuns serve to instruct, uplift, and console readers from every walk of life.  At the same time, they may trigger the resolve one needs to make the decision to "give one's life to God," and may further lead someone to take the monastic path.