After graduating from Harvard Divinity School, I spent a year in a women's monastery in Greece. One nun I particularly liked, who had a very wry sense of humor, told me: "The monastery is a spiritual hospital. And as you can see, some of the patients are chronic."
All types came to the monastery. At any time, besides the sisters with their vast range of backgrounds and personalities, there might also be elegant wealthy ladies from Geneva, American tourists, or mentally deranged types who arrived without even a change of clothes and turned the place upside down.
The nuns would say:
Community life is like the rough rocks in the river that knock and grind together until they are made smooth.
The person you love is a gift from God, and the person you cannot stand is an even greater gift from God.
If you say that you love God, but you do not love your neighbor, then you are fooling yourself that you love God.
Living and working in community is a kind of martyrdom.
Two nuns who did not get along had to go to every person in the monastery and make prostrations before each one, saying, "We despise each other."
It's hard to hide when you are in community. It's an opportunity to bring everything dark within you out.
An Orthodox teaching says that heaven and hell are both experiences of God. For the pure of heart, God's light is a radiant joy. But for those not ready to see themselves clearly, the light burns like fire.
I got on with most of the sisters. But there was once a guest who came to stay in the monastery who I could not stand. She was pious and judgmental and kept comparing us good girls to the slutty girls who don't spend time in monasteries.
The nuns knew I did not like her and made me share a room with her.
One of the nuns said to me: "You must learn from everyone. Perhaps you must separate what in them is from God and what is from demons. But even the demons have something to teach you. Don't forget that the snake in the garden had the gift of Sophia, Wisdom."
What do you do when you meet the devil? Smile politely and continue to do your work.
Evagrius of Pontus, one of the most influential monastic authors, wrote, "The greatest weapon against the demons is gentleness."
This applies to both internal and external demons.
Logismoi are thoughts or thought forms. According to Orthodox ascetic teaching, although all kinds of awful thoughts may pass through our minds, this is not sin. Even momentary murderous thoughts are not a sin. This is just the state of being human after the Fall. The sin is to grab onto the thought and become involved with it, to enter into communion with the thought, to become entangled.
The nuns said we fall down a hundred times a day. Saints also fall down, but they get up again and it's a new moment.
The nuns made the distinction between forgiveness and being sorry. Forgiveness finishes everything. If you are sorry, you are still in the sin. You are still dwelling in the drama, the hurt, the situation. You feel bad. With forgiveness, every moment is a new moment. The past is past.
When I first became Orthodox, my father was very worried I would become too nice. "This would be a great loss," he said. And I did go through a phase in the monastery when I found myself following the rules and being polite. The longer I was there, the more I noted how things worked and found myself unconsciously moving to do what appeared to be the right thing, to follow the rule.
I started to be disturbed by this quality in myself and I told one of the nuns: "I've lost my sense of humor, my naughtiness. I'm becoming Goody Two-shoes. It's one thing to be an Orthodox Christian, but to be an Orthodox Christian Goody Two-shoes is horrifying to me."
And she replied: "Yes, this does not suit you. You must stop this immediately. You must be much more outrageous."
Occasionally monks would arrive who had been traveling from place to place or living in their cars for months. They would be wild-haired, unwashed. There was one I was always happy to see. He would arrive suddenly and I'd hear he had been living in the mountains with thieves and hooligans. "Those are my kind of people," he would say. "I cannot stand this scheduled life." He drank too much wine and made loud toasts during the silent mealtimes. But he also loved everyone and pressed cotton soaked in sweet-smelling myrrh into any nearby hands, telling us it had sprung from a holy icon of the Mother of God.
There is an idea I like but have yet to enter into—that Eastern Orthodox Christianity is not so much a religion as a therapeutic method to move closer to God.
Creation is inherently good. Humankind is inherently good. But the human soul suffers a malady, which distorts our relationship with God, other people, and nature. We see ourselves as separate and forget how to truly love. And so, more than any system of moral conduct or belief, we are in need of a therapeutic treatment to cure this rift and restore our relationship to the world, ourselves, and one another.
As one nun put it: "According to the Orthodox Church, people are meant to be gods. By our nature alone we cannot become gods, but by the grace of God we can. The problem with Adam was not that he wanted to be a god, but that he wanted to be a god alone, without communion with God. He did not ask for the fruit, but took it. He needed to ask to receive it."
I was told this movement toward God happens slowly, slowly by cleaning the heart through prayer, confession, and by cultivating the virtues. And the outcome is humility, wisdom, holiness—a perspective in which we are no longer the center of the world, God is at the center, as in the prayer describing God as "everywhere present and filling all things."
One nun said: "Everyone is always looking up to find God, but you must look down. God is so humble, he is under your foot."
Once, after I had been in the monastery for a few months, I came upon an icon that appeared to be crying, weeping real, wet tears. I didn't know what to make of it and so I went to tell the nuns. But none of them were interested in coming to see it. Finally, I found the nun in charge and made her come with me. She venerated the icon by making a prostration and kissing it. As we were walking away, I broke the silence and asked her, kind of crudely, "So, what do you think?"
She replied: "This is very good for those with little faith. But the real miracle is in seeing ourselves as we are and repenting for our sins. And when we do this, how much we can love. This is the real miracle."
Amelia Perkins received a Master of Theology degree from Harvard Divinity School in 2005. She currently works for a transformational leadership organization in Chicago.