“A Life-Changing Experience” – Sister Theoterpi CYA Alumna
Sister Theoterpi née Christina McFall was a student at CYA in the fall semester of 2006. During this time, in an attempt to enrich her knowledge about her studies, concerning philosophy, Ancient Greek and environmental protection, she discovered the Holy Monastery of St. John. Read as she shares her remarkable life-changing CYA story with us.
A Life-Changing Experience
By Nun Theoterpi, née Christina McFall (CYA Spring ‘06), Grinnell College
My Modern Greek professor, Lida Triantafillidou, was always a master at finding interesting topics on which to engage her tongue-tied students in conversation around the margins of class time. One day, she asked me slowly and clearly: “Εσύ θα γίνεις καλόγρια;” (“Are you going to become a nun?”) My response: “Τί σημαίνει ‹καλόγρια›; (“What does ‘nun’ mean?”). She provided me with the lexical equivalent for “καλόγρια”, but in the same way that what I knew as “feta” was actually not equivalent to “φέτα” and my generic understanding of “sea” had very little to do with “θάλασσα,” I had a limited conception of what it meant to be a “nun” in the Orthodox Christian sense, especially its Greek expression, and I couldn’t imagine what about me or my behavior could possibly have given her such an idea. That said, the portrayals of monasticism in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Ladder of Divine Ascent and other texts we read in a course on the Orthodox Church, tempted one to wonder if perhaps that tradition were still alive out there somewhere.
On free weekends I visited a couple of monasteries, in which guests were given the opportunity to attend church services and were periodically fed, but otherwise left to use their time in their cells as they wished. Thanks to the combination of communicating in Modern Greek and reading The Birds for class, I was soon able to catch some phrases from the hymnography, enough to be impressed at the terms in which the Orthodox dared to pray. Where I was coming from (rural Kansas and liberal Protestantism), we didn’t talk much about things like “sin” (ἁμαρτία), “obedience” (ὑπακοή), “repentance” (μετάνοια), “mercy” (ἔλεος), “chastity” (σωφροσύνη), “longing” (πόθος), etc. Intrigued, I began to try to parse such words’ in situ significance. At that stage, an acquaintance recommended that I visit a certain monastery high on a mountain, where the nuns came from many different countries and supported themselves by organic gardening, animal husbandry and cheese-making: St. John the Forerunner near Anatoli, above Agia.
My first stay lasted only a couple of days, just long enough to observe the milking, weed a little, attend Divine Liturgy, be struck by the beauty of everything from the chanting to the stone floors, and have a frank conversation with the abbess, Gerontissa Theodekti, who gave her blessing for me to come back for the whole summer. Working alongside the nuns, experiencing the church services, eating the monastery’s own food, etc. created ideal conditions for living my way into the language and mentality of which I had become such a fervent admirer.
It was the ideal extension of my time at CYA, in that all my coursework came to life in the context of the monastery’s day-to-day reality.
It was the ideal extension of my time at CYA, in that all my coursework came to life in the context of the monastery’s day-to-day reality. For example, I had read about the relationship between environmental ethics and the Orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, but I could not have imagined how productively this theory could be yoked to practice. And there is no better place to learn experientially what is meant by the theological and ascetic literature of the Orthodox Church than in the midst of a healthy monastic community. It turned out that Lida’s hunch was correct: having soon realized that I had no wish to be anywhere else, I returned to the monastery to stay right after graduating from college. Many thanks to everyone who makes CYA what it is, for pushing me past my preconceptions and putting me in the position not to just observe, but to participate in Greece’s living spiritual heritage.
Source: Featured in the Fall 2016 edition of CYA’s Alumni Newsletter, “The Owl“