Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | June 17, 2010

Peter French on the Humility of Orthodox Nuns

The other day I stumbled across a recommended book: Peter French’s “A Place of Healing for the Soul – Patmos, and I have to say that here indeed is a delightful, humorous and well-written account of conversion that is so much less of the sort one typically finds. It is an account of the conversion of a non-believer journeying to Patmos for vacation and finding far more. It is indeed laugh-out-loud “I gotta read this to you…” funny in places.

And then there are the inevitable nuggets. I suspect we all find things in books that strike us as particularly apt, helpful, odd, humorous, or whatever… and I am always struck with wonder at the amazing way we can each seem to pick out different things – even when we read the same book – so that the “How did I miss that?” is less a commentary on one’s own blindness, but more on the rapture of one reader and another each taken by different phrases to see and simultaneously miss things . But somehow  together these snippets fit and complement an understanding of even a simple text like this. Guess there’s a reason “salvation” is not a lonely art!

Anyway, I liked the author’s illumination of certain aspects of a nun’s life that seemed similar in many respects to my own experience of one of my sponsors into the Church, now a sister at Holy Ascension Monastery (OCA) – daughter monastery of St. Barbara – out in glorious California.  And so I post it here in her honor, and I hope without compromising her humility.

“It was when the brandy-bearing nun bore down on me for the third time that I had my first revelation. Until then my reactions to the convent had been what I took to be normal for a nonreligious intruder: the unfamiliar rites made me feel out of place; the ordered formality of the surroundings made me stiff and awkward. And I felt, above all, the great sadness of seeing so many women of all ages – many of whom were young and in another context might have been thought attractive – so withdrawn, their white, severe faces half-hidden by cowls, the humanity sucked out of them by the severities of their asceticism. Then the cherry-brandy nun looked straight into my eyes, shook the tray a little to encourage me to another glass and smiled. I realized that here was a young girl who was bright, warm, enthusiastic and glad to be what she was. The withdrawal that I had noticed, the practice of walking with eyes lowered and faces half-hidden, was a practical way of getting around undistracted. Unlike politicians, nuns have no need to be noticed or to notice. But when called on, when confronted by a person, they respond immediately, directly, and totally.

Most of the nuns spoke only Greek. We sipped our coffees and watched them busily carrying trays around the reception room. They were entirely focused on what they were doing, with a concentration that seemed to cut them off from their surroundings. But if somebody spoke to one of them, her face would light up in a smile and she would focus just as completely on the person.

I realized that this is the essence of humility. There was a complete absence of regard for the self in the way they lived. Either the work mattered or the person mattered. I had thought humility meant accepting that you did not amount to much, that you should always devalue yourself or your achievements when talking to other people. I had been influenced by the ethos of New College, at Oxford University, the essence of which is that you must never make your superiority to others apparent to them. This was essentially the English form of humility, which built the empire and realized, for a time, the prophecy that the meek would inherit the earth. But it was a cant. Real humility, I learned from the nuns of Evangelismos, is not thinking yourself less than the dust. It is thinkig of others so completely that you do not think about yourself at all.”

Responses

  1. “I had thought humility meant accepting that you did not amount to much, that you should always devalue yourself or your achievements when talking to other people.”

    On the contrary I have found, at least for my own experience, that this was only false modesty. I really wanted to cackle about myself like a chanticleer, to crow about my talent and/or how my experience was poorer/harder than everyone else’s.

    “Real humility, I learned from the nuns of Evangelismos, is not thinking yourself less than the dust. It is thinking of others so completely that you do not think about yourself at all.”

    As good a definition of humility as I’ve ever seen. It sounds so easy but is so very hard.

    Thank you for such a wonderful post.

  2. This looks like a great book. His observations are spot on in my experience at St. Paisius monastery. I love the definition of humility… The nuns are beautiful in ways that the world will never know. There is nothing more glorious than a smiling nun.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: