Orthodox America

  Memories of Abbess Mary

by E. Vinitska

    I am fortunate to have made several trips to the Holy Land: I went a number of times with a group of pilgrims led by Bishop Methodius, and twice I went on my own. As part of a group it was difficult to become well acquainted with Abbess Mary. I simply remember the figure of a slender nun in a white habit with a walking stick in her hand (it was already difficult for her to get around). Tall, with a noble English face, she was welcoming and kindly disposed towards everyone.

      On my first independent trip to the Holy Land, I stayed at Gethsemane for two weeks with a friend, a young English woman who was already well acquainted with Mother Mary. The next time I went there alone, also for two weeks. During these two visits, I had the opportunity to meet almost daily with Mother Mary and to converse with her at length. We talked in English; although she spoke Russian well and understood everything, it was easier for her to find the right words and expressions in her native tongue, and this greatly facilitated our understanding of one another. I was invited to sit at her table, and although she no longer took her meals with the sisters because of her infirmities, she always came towards the end of trapeza, when they were having coffee and dessert, in order to talk with them at least once a day; when her health cooperated, she would come twice a day.

      I came to know her quite well. She spoke quickly and naturally, without any pretension or constraint, answering all my numerous questions: How did you meet Mother Barbara? What was your experience at your tonsure? How is Gethsemane supported? The most incredible questions came to mind and Mother Mary answered them all, willingly and affably. Our conversation was so relaxed that it never occurred to me that perhaps it was out of place for me to speak to an abbess in this way...

      If I were to briefly define what was most attractive about Mother Mary, I would say it was her spiritual beauty, her greatness of soul and her nobility, and she strove towards these same qualities in their absolute. That is why the Lord drew her to the true faith. She remained in Jerusalem for good, and began to establish living centers, so that Orthodoxy, too, would have its active sources of charity and instruction of the local inhabitants, so that the flower of Orthodoxy would not fade in the Holy Land, so that Orthodox prayers would not fall silent in the Garden of Gethsemane.

      Mother Mary possessed those qualities fundamental to a successful undertaking: the necessary authority and decisiveness, the ability to relate to people and to find loyal co-workers, and likewise to inspire trust and respect. Vladika Anastassy, to whom Mother Mary was wholly devoted, loved the Holy Land and inspired his spiritual children with a similarly intense devotion to the holy sites associated with the life of the Saviour. It was through him that Mother Mary became thoroughly imbued with Orthodox piety.

       Mother Mary was an extraordinary woman. In her was united absolute faith and faithfulness to the Lord, a lively, constant trust in and love for the Heavenly Bridegroom -- as she liked to call the Lord. Her tireless efforts in performing works of mercy, even during times of physical weakness, her steadfast courage and beneficence -- they all sprang from her constant walking Ix, fore the Lord, her constant keeping in remembrance the Lord's tears shed in the garden of Gethsemane. Mother Mary often wrote that one must not lose the ability to hear the inner voice in the secret recesses of the soul; she spoke about how at first the Lord's voice is heard in the stillness of the soul, so very quiet that it is barely audible. But one must develop an ear for it, and then you will be able to understand, and you will rejoice. In this garden of Gethsemane, this holy place where she lived, that quiet Voice is heard especially clearly...

      Mother Mary valued beauty in all its manifestations -- in music, in poetry, in iconography. I remember how the children of the Bethany school staged a performance in her honor. She did not care for it because she found it to be "in poor taste." She said that it was very, important to instill in children from an early age an appreciation of beauty and harmony, which elevate the soul. She herself was very sensitive to phenomena in nature, and frequently ascribed to them a spiritual significance...

      I cannot close my reminiscences of Mother Mary without mentioning Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, whose example she followed and whom she so admired and loved. Was it because their paths were so similar: both were foreigners who converted to Orthodoxy from Protestantism, both founded centers of prayer and charity, both loved the Holy Land. Was it because of this affinity that they were destined to meet spiritually in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the tomb of the Grand Duchess? This meeting had a decisive impact on the Anglican nun, it inspired her and transformed her into the future Mother Mary, confirming her in her newly-chosen spiritual path. Matushka grieved over the murder of the Royal Family and the Grand Duchess -- Russia's great tragedy -- as if she were a Russian. The cupolas of the church of St Mary Magdalene will regain their lustre when Russia comes to life again," she would say.

      Although Mother Mary converted from Anglicamsm to Orthodoxy, she maintained a lenient attitude towards the heterodox. "You know," she would say, "over the years I have had occasion to meet such good, kind people both among sectarians, among Catholics and among Arabs. So there is no need to be distressed that there are so many of them. The Lord will judge. The main thing is that they should love God above all else." ... Her leniency in judging her neighbor, her patience towards the heterodox, her concern for the needs of the people around her -- it is little wonder that everyone loved and respected her. From diverse social circles and different confessions, Mother Mary had many real friends. A great crowd of people came to her funeral, not merely to pay their due respects to an Orthodox abbess, one who had achieved so much, but with tears of gratitude and sincere love to accompany someone close and dear to them to the grave./.../

      There can be no more genuine memorial to Mother Mary than our efforts to aid the Gethsemane and Bethany communities. This will be a great joy and consolation for our departed Matushka -- and her fervent desire. 

Translated from a Russian manuscript in the archives of the Gethsemane Convent.

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