Tuesday, August 14, 2012

An interview with "The Scent of Holiness" author

Constantina R. Palmer is a Canadian currently living in Greece with her husband who serves as a deacon in the OCA. Aside from her experience in Byzantine chant and iconography, she holds a Master’s degree in Theology from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her new book, The Scent of Holiness, will be available in September from Conciliar Press. I have been a follower of her blog Lessons from a Monastery for some months and was delighted to hear that she had a book coming out. She has generously answered a few questions about her book in the following interview.

What prompted you to write this book?

A couple years ago a few monasteries caught on fire. They were separate incidents but all happened around the same time. I saw videos on the internet of one of the fires at a monastery my husband and I had visited and the images of the poor monastics crying and praying and making the sign of the cross while watching their monastery burn was what prompted me to write the book. I started thinking about how horrible it would be if for some reason the monasteries I frequently visit here in Greece were destroyed.

At first I just thought I'd compile all the wonderful experiences I had for myself. So I began making a list of the various stories and anecdotes I wanted to include, and the sheer size of the list was enough to prompt the idea of publication. I made a joke to my brother about publishing them as a collection in a book and he matter-of-factly said, "Of course you should publish them." So that is how it began. The more I wrote, the more came to mind and the book is now made up of over 100 stories and has grown to almost 300 hundred pages in length.

There's an idea of "women's spirituality" presented in the book. Could you explain that a bit?

Well, I wouldn't exactly say that women have one type of spirituality, and men another. Rather a woman's approach to spirituality may differ slightly from a man's approach, and so the environment of a women's monastery will mirror this.

The best way I can explain this is to share, as I do in the Introduction to my book, what an abbess once told me about the difference between men and women: “Men try to cut the rope with an axe in one blow, while women slowly work away at severing it. In other words, men usually try to cut off their passions with violence right from the beginning, while women try to fight their passions consistently, but gradually.” The approach is different, not the resulting spirituality.

An abbot rules as a father does, an abbess as a mother would. It's difficult to put into words how exactly mothers differ from fathers, and yet we seem to have a common understanding of this difference. Of course, there are abbots who are more like nurturing mothers, and abbesses who are more like strict fathers. It isn't a hard and fast rule, but a generality. And so, women's monasticism isn't a condescension of men's monasticism, rather it simply reflects the natural characteristics which typically pertain to women.

What sort of material makes up this book? Is it a series of stories? Are the chapters separated by concept or chronologically?

The chapters are neither separated by concept nor chronologically. The chapters are separated into 33 "Knots" to symbolize the 33 knots of the small prayer rope worn on one's wrist. Within each Knot there are a series of 2-4 vignettes. So, while most stories are independent from those around it, there is a common thread. This way the ebb and flow of the everyday life in a monastery is represented and there is a natural balance, intertwining the more serious spiritual stories with humorous, light-hearted ones.

Though the following categories are not clearly stated in the book, the stories reflect these five themes (some of which overlap, of course):

  1. Personally meaningful and memorable experiences
  2. Examples of monastic life, mindset, work and prayer
  3. Spiritual stories told to me by the sisters or fellow pilgrims
  4. Encounters with contemporary saints and short biographies
  5. Stories of humorous cultural and/or language barriers

Ultimately the book is reminiscent of a Gerontikon in that it is made up of a variety of stories. The main differences being that a Gerontikon is almost always ordered according to theme, and written by a monastic (generally) for monastics. While The Scent of Holiness is written from my perspective as a layperson looking in on monasticism and hoping to take what I see there and apply it to my life in the world.

Could you speak to how different monasticism is in Greece than it is in the US or Canada?

The biggest difference between monasticism in Greece and monasticism in the US or Canada is that monasticism has existed in Greece for some 1,500 years. Thus, the monastic mindset and way of life is firmly established. While in North America monasticism is still relatively young.

This does not mean that there are no monasteries in North America that embody the true monastic spirit. On the contrary, there are quite a few, considering how large North America is. But it does mean that there are more anomalies in the US and Canada than there may be in an Orthodox country. However, this shouldn't spoil our view of Orthodox monasticism in general.

While my younger sister was staying at a monastery for a few months some years ago the abbess shared something with her that I think we can apply to Orthodox monasteries at large: "If you see something in a monastery, someone who talks or acts differently than the other sisters, know that that is not monasticism. What the sisters do and say in common is monasticism, not what comes from one individual." If a particular monastery does not reflect Orthodox monasticism worldwide, then it is not monasticism.

Orthodox monasteries, despite differences in language, habit, work, or typikon, share certain universal qualities: obedience, chastity, and poverty - to name a few. On top of those basic precepts, there is a monastic spirit that permeates monasteries that is perceivable even when one monastery seems to differ entirely in outward ways from another. That is, provided the community upholds the above mentioned qualities of monasticism. If the community is healthy, if it keeps the fasts of the Church, struggles to uphold Christ's commandments, and adheres to a regime of prayer than it will flourish over time, even if the country it is in is entirely secular or at very least non-Orthodox.

What we need to do is pray for our monastics in the US and Canada, pray that they maintain the spirit of authentic monasticism, and that God would grant them the strength to allow Christ to work through them, through their prayers for the world. Over time Christ will grant our request, so long as we keep knocking at the door. Then North America can become the second Egyptian desert, or the second Irish islands (both of which are famous for their monasticism).

Is there anything that surprised you about Greek women's monasteries when you first visited them or that might be surprising to an American visitor?

For me, some things came across as superstitious or over-the-top, while at other times it was (and still is to an extent) difficult for me to not be personally offended by the sisters' bluntness in the way they may speak. Very few of the stories in my book reflect this conflict, but I do make a point to mention negative experiences in my Introduction. It is easy for us - whether because of our own sins and passions, or external factors - to be scandalized, offended, embittered, etc, while visiting monasteries. This is for a variety of reasons, most notably that a monastery is a spiritual battleground and therefore we're not immune to being pulled into the fight (ie. tempted) while we are there.

But, if we are even a little bit aware of our ego, if we try to check it at the door, then we will be able to receive a lot of benefit. Things may surprise or even scandalize us at a monastery, but so long as we at least try to approach the situation with an appropriate mindset, ie. with thoughts like "I don't know everything," and "I may not understand or like something the first time I encounter it, but it doesn't make it wrong," then we can come out better for having had the experience. At least that's how I see it. My advice to others who want to visit monasteries is don't be surprised if things surprise you. Just try not to judge (since we're almost always at fault when we pass judgement); try to keep an open heart and a humble mindset.

Many so-called "cradle" Orthodox in North America have never visited a monastery and at the same time new coverts often find their way to monasteries quite early in their journey into Orthodoxy. A. What do you think it is that calls people new to the Faith to our monasteries B. and at the same time why do many of our faithful experience little of the Church beyond their own parish? C. What are people seeking when they visit and what should they be seeking after when they enter the confines of our monastic communities? 

A. I don't believe in distinguishing Orthodox Christians into convert and cradle groups. I think all those drawn to monasticism are drawn because monasticism is the heart of Orthodoxy. St. John Climacus says, "Angels are a light for monastics, and monastics are a light for the world". St. Synclektike says monastics are the seeds which fell on good ground and brought forth fruit "one-hundred fold". And so, it's only naturally that serious Orthodox Christians - full of zeal to live Christianity to the best of their ability - seek out those whose lifestyles most emulate the Gospel precepts.

B. As for those who have not and do not visit monasteries (putting aside the possibility that some are unable to travel to one), there is a minority of people who have an anti-monastic spirit and do not believe in the role of monasticism, despite our Church's long history showing monasticism as the core of our faith. But I think for most who do not visit monasteries, it is simply that they either know little of the great role Orthodox monasticism has in our faith, or they are lukewarm and do not desire to grow beyond their current spiritual level.

It is easy for us to become complacent, and we also often don't like change. And so, "I never went to a monastery before, why should I start now?" is a common, if unfortunate, mindset. But when people begin looking deeper into their faith, when they begin to have many difficulties in their lives, they often turn to monasteries for comfort and support, and this is a wonderful thing.

C. I don't claim to know why everyone visits monasteries. However, I know some visit out of curiosity; others naively think that they are going to a place that houses passionless saints, while still others go seeking advice. In my opinion, those who continually visit monasteries have an earnest desire to deepen their spiritual lives, and to learn how exactly to uphold the commandments. Visiting monasteries won't necessarily make us holy, but it certainly helps us on the long and difficult path to holiness.

Monasteries, even those established by the same founder, vary in schedules, liturgical practices, strictness to rules on demeanor, dress, and talking. Beyond the basic rules of modest dress and general comportment, things are done that might be confusing to a visitor. As examples: Before departing from a morning service each monk might bow in multiple directions. During the Divine Liturgy monks might prostrate themselves unexpectedly on the ground. On some days no of them will come up for Communion. Should a visitor try to mimic their practices? Is there an expectation of any sort about things like that?

I can only speak about my experiences at Greek monasteries, what I say may not apply to other monasteries. In my experience, Greeks have no expectations of pilgrims or parishioners, in terms of the above. You know, whether you make three prostrations, one, or none, that kind of thing.

When you see a whole monastic community not receiving Holy Communion, it is because in some traditions, or under some spiritual fathers, the faithful keep a lenten fast the day before communing. So, if the monastics didn't fast (and they usually follow a schedule of when they fast for Holy Communion, and when they don't), then they won't approach the chalice. But if we (as visitors) have a blessing from our spiritual father to communion, as long as we follow our personal rules, we should communion as often as we can whether or not others are communing.

I can almost guarantee that other than following the basic rules the monastic community has laid out, monastics do not expect visitors to mimic their actions. If a pilgrim wants to follow the monastics and do what they are doing (ie. prostrating during services), by all means they should. We just need to be careful not to hasten to do things out of a desire to appear pious; but equally, neither should we hesitate to do something for fear of being judged by others for looking pious. And we can always ask the monks or nuns why they do certain things and when or if it is appropriate for us to follow suit.

Have you spoken to many of the nuns about how they were called to enter the monastery? How did they express hearing the call?

I try not to make a habit of asking monastics many personal questions. However, the ones who have told me about being called to monasticism have all expressed one thing in common: they all felt they couldn't do anything else. Some knew from childhood that they wanted to be nuns. Others never had the thought cross their minds until they visited a monastery and couldn't bring themselves to leave. Still others played with the idea of marriage or monasticism until suddenly they just knew they should be a monastic.

A friend of mine had a dream that she was a nun and the next day ran to her spiritual father crying and saying she didn't want to become a nun. She's been a nun for about fifteen years now. Despite her strong will to resist monasticism, she surrendered because she knew that was the right fit for her.

Another friend of mine told me that while speaking with a nun she confided she was thinking about getting married, but then also thought she wanted to be a nun. The nun cut her off and said: "Get married. The monastic life is far too hard if you are not entirely certain that this is what you want to do."

At the end of the day, all the nuns I know, at some time or other, felt they weren't able to do anything else but become a monastic. Then of course, you become a monastic and dry spells come and go and at times you may feel like fleeing... but that's another story.

What are your hopes for this book? What do you hope people take away from the experience of reading it?

I hope that people are inspired by reading the book, that they are filled with zeal to take aspects from the stories and discreetly apply them to their own lives in the world. My whole purpose in compiling the stories and having them published was to share with others the great blessings I received from visiting monasteries. If only one person benefits from reading the book than I will have considered my one "talent" to have at least collected interest for the Master (Matt. 25:27).

Thanks for being so generous with your time by answering all these questions. I look forward to reading it when it comes out next month!

Thank you for being so kind to conduct the interview and come up with such interesting questions! I hope you like the book.


  1. I plan on preordering 20 copies for my church bookstore!

  2. I enjoyed this interview very much, and look forward to reading the book.

    1. Thank you. Hoping to do a book review when my copy comes in!

  3. http://priestmatthewjackson.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/book-review-the-scent-of-holiness-lessons-from-a-womens-monastery/

    1. I enjoyed the interview. I will definitely recommend this book to others.

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