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
existenceis the basic makeup of an Orthodox nun.
Such female asceticseldresses, abbesses,
and fools-for-Christabounded 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 eyenot
relegating the principles in them solely to the realm of monastic experience,
the realm behind tall convent walls that house and enshrine ascetic exploitthese
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 neededa 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")
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