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Letters to a Beginner: On Giving One's Life to God

Introduction and Forward

Take as much as you can carry... the Lord is rich in mercies.
—St. John of Kronstadt, in conversation with Abbess Thaisia.

WHY CAN'T WE, free women of the 20th century, have paradisal otherworldliness rhythmically beating in our breasts? Why should the saints of the past be the only "Godbearers, " and we not have God at our side? What hinders the contemporary woman, albeit living in ultra-modern surroundings, from having at hand patristic, ascetic spiritual power, endowed by Christ Himself? What hinders us from truly being with God?

It is true: we are all novices and beginners. We can, therefore, benefit from these instructions by the spiritual daughter of St. John of Kronstadt, who offers in the following pages the principles of adjusting our souls to the discipline of living first of all a "life in Christ." The lyrical narrative of these letters by the honorable Abbess Thaisia, a spiritual heroine for the 20th century, is surely worthy to fill the void. Our young girls who walk the corridors of today's shopping malls, if presented with these principles of life "not of this world," will gather the much needed potency of spirit, to the great benefit of those around them and their future children.

As we look at people walking the street today, we see them rushing in search of daily needs. On their faces are concern, agitation, and the fear of not being accepted by society unless they have that which the modern fashions and mores call necessities, but which axe really burdens. We also see people who rebel against these accepted concerns, who harbor a deep (though perhaps unidentifiable) desire to know of the mystical, spiritual life, which is the ultimate fulfillment of our lives here upon this earth.

Of course this observation could also be typical of former centuries in Christian societies. The difference between then and now lies in the current lack of awareness of true Christian mystical experience, which used to permeate all levels of city and country life. This void naturally wants to be filled, and is therefore vulnerable to being possessed not with Godliness, but with fallenness and the dark powers under heaven (Eph. 6:12). This is especially true in today's society which is so eager to offer a cheap substitute for the authentic spiritual life which would otherwise see one safely through the trials of this world.

The conscientious Orthodox pastor, aware of patristic wisdom, is especially concerned with the lack of Orthodox experience that is reaching today's women. Women, who by their very nature are more spiritually inclined than men, are being molded by contemporary androgenous fashions which unwittingly lead them away from their God-given feminine traits. Thus they often lose ground in acquiring spirituality, without which feminine gentleness turns to spiritual coarseness and loses its natural vibrancy.

The feminine heroes who are promoted by society today have very little of the refined qualities of soul and genuine manliness of spirit which are the attributes of a saint. It would be true to state that a female saint, full of fearless asceticism and the elegance of a beholder of God, is virtually unknown today. Although promoted by the media, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, that wonderful nun, appears in the contemporary framework of our society as out of place as a Martian, almost too unique to be real. Yet the combination of being a soldier for Christ and a hesychast,*—being aware of the principles of spiritual life practiced in the reality of our earthly existence—is the basic makeup of an Orthodox nun.

Such female ascetics—eldresses, abbesses, and fools-for-Christ—abounded in Russia in the 19th century, and their worthy followers have lived well into the 20th century. Our century has also produced an admirable display of Orthodox women. Through the written word many of them have arrested on paper, and with almost three-dimensional clarity, a traditional Orthodox rebuttal against modern godlessness. The rebuttal consists in their depiction of a lifestyle that has encompassed two thousand years of Orthodox mystical experience as lived by ordinary men and women.

These 20th century women writers, indeed worthy of our attention (briefly touched upon in a recent St. Herman Calendar for 1992), along with Abbess Thaisia, include: Helen Voronova, Nun Barbara (Sukhanova), Abbess Sophia of Kiev, Nun Thaisia of France, Helen Lope, and our own Helen Kontzevitch, together with many others. They constitute a powerful body of writers, though unknown to the literary world. They were moved by the spirit of Orthodox Christian life and preserved valuable and vivid reflections of that life in practice.

Abbess Thaisia was a gifted literary figure in her own right, a poetess, and a songwriter, who touched millions with her warm heart and lyrical outpouring of soul. She was an outstanding ecclesiastical figure promoting Christian education and monastic fervency amidst her contemporaries. This very book of Letters was designated by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church as the official source of monastic formation for women. It was decreed by the Synod that each parish and monastery bookstore carry this book as an introduction to young girls interested in monasticism so that they would form in their minds a right picture of monasticism and how to satisfy the spiritual desire to dedicate one's life to Christ.

We offer this volume of letters as a sequel to the Autobiography of Abbess Thaisia. It is number four in the Modern Matericon Series designed to introduce Orthodox women's asceticism to contemporary God-seekers.

If one reads Abbess Thaisia's letters on spiritual life with a discerning eye—not relegating the principles in them solely to the realm of monastic experience, the realm behind tall convent walls that house and enshrine ascetic exploit—these principles can be soberly used among the spiritually impoverished souls of our urban society, enriching men and women with a prayerful life, their feet firmly planted on earth and their hearts abiding with the saints in heaven.

There are women today (caught up in the spiritual void of today's society, yet having great potential) who would love to know the principles of spiritual life as depicted in the letters of Abbess Thaisia. In order to fill that aching void, this translation is presented with joy.

* One who practices to keep the prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," unceasingly in the heart.

Ryassophore Nun Sophia Leland
Icon of the Mother of God, "Quick to Hear," Nov. 1992
St. Paisius Abbey Sebastopol, California


To the First Edition of 1900

The aim of the present work is to acquaint those who are newly entering the monastery with the major principles and works of monastic life, about which most of them have not the least understanding. Although all such principles are expounded excellently and in detail in numerous ascetic works, not everyone has access to these precious books, not everyone can easily understand them owing to their profound content, and even their selection must be very careful. My forty years of experience in the monastic life and twenty years of experience as a superior have led me to understand that a shorter, simplified work is needed—a living, spoken word, as it were, with examples taken from life, and partly also from ascetic life nearer and more contemporary to us, as a primary guide for novices newly entering the monastery, who are bringing with them no knowledge of the way of life they are entering. They are moved only by zeal to serve the Lord far from the world. Therefore, I have decided to set forth in these "Letters to a Beginner," in words possibly brief but precise, all her major works, in order to give her a suitable guide for monastic life at her first steps of entry into the monastery.

Abbess Thaisia, 1900

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Table of Contents

Letter 1: Upon Entering the Monastery

Letter 2: On the Origin of Monasticism

Letter 3: On Submission to Elders

Letter 4: On Obedience

Letter 5: On Mutual Love

Letter 6: On the Duties of a Choir Singer

Letter 7: On Excesses in Attire

Letter 8: On Superfluous Cares in General

Letter 9: On Idle Talk and Gossip

Letter 10: On the Inevitability of Sorrows

Letter 11: On Illnesses and Their Cures

Letter 12: On Prayer

Letter 13: On Interior ("Mental") Prayer

Letter 14: On the Tonsure into Monasticism

From Letters to a Beginner is published by St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press and available from any good Orthodox bookstore.