Western Europeans in Search of Truth
The Nativity of the Mother of God Convent, Asten, the Netherlands
By Nun Cornelia (Rees)
Aug 25, 2008
The sunsets and sunrises in this rural, southern part of Holland emanate mystical shades of effervescent pink, a manifestation which has drawn many an artist to these lowlands. And if one were to search all over Holland, it would be difficult to find a place more suitable for a monastery than this patch of land, an unusual expanse in a densely-populated country. The usual markings of Dutch countryside apply here-lush green fields, fat, shiny, black and white cows, tidy brick farm houses with lace in the windows, canals, and undisturbed horizons. It is quiet, green, and fertile, with a faint wisp of the sea in the air.
Carefully preserved nature, local tradition, cleanliness, all set the European stage for a comfortable, peaceful life. But what is all that without the grace God? Only a landscape, or a still-life. In Asten, however, a roadside chapel in the Russian style, with cupola and eight-pointed cross, stands out against the flat horizon. And the pinkish-purple effervescence radiates somehow not only from the sun, but from the heavens; for in this place there is an Orthodox monastery, dedicated to the Nativity of the Mother of God.
The founder and Abbess of this small community is Mother Maria, who was born in Den Hague. Mother Maria is an edifying example of one who sought and found, asked, and received. The visible result is this convent.
Born at the end of the Second World War, a time of great hardship for the Netherlands, Mother Maria describes her upbringing as conducive to a Christian outlook on life.
“I was born and raised at the outskirts of The Hague. Behind our house were woods, with dunes beyond. It was a beautiful area, and it inspired the beginning of my love for nature and its Creator. Although I was not raised as a believer, I grew up in a loving family, where we were taught to respect people and nature. In my early childhood I was influenced by the Bible stories we studied in our religion classes in primary school, and later, after experiences of my own, I began to think about the big questions of life: ‘Is there a God? Is it true that He hears our prayers?’ My mother sometimes attended the Dutch Reformed Church. I began to go with her, and attend the Sunday school. Later I had a Roman Catholic friend who sang in a Byzantine Catholic Church choir. When I was fourteen, I also began to sing in that choir, in Church Slavonic, at the Liturgy. At about the same time, I visited the Orthodox Convent of St. John the Forerunner in The Hague. Here I became Orthodox, at the age of eighteen.”
Russian Orthodoxy came to Holland in the 1940’s and 50’s, through this community in The Hague, with the unsuspecting help of the Catholic Church. When the communist revolution swept over Russia, a diaspora formed in Western Europe which was to help introduce the Orthodox Faith to the local people. Christianity in Russia was being replaced by militant atheism, a fact which caused the Catholic Church to begin its fervent prayers for the Christianization of Russia.
“Of course, the Catholic Church envisioned a Catholic Russia, but many people were sincerely concerned about Russia’s fate. This is what inspired the formation of a Catholic ministry to Russian refugees, and the opening of a monastery in Chevetogne, Belgium, by Benedictine Catholic monks who had studied in the Vatican’s Rusicon. The new monastery was supposed to observe the Byzantine liturgical rites. These were missionary-minded people, ready to go to Russia and preach; but it became clear that their preaching was not needed there. The ministry helped many Russian refugees; however, it could be argued that they were a bit deceptive at the outset-they did not tell these refugees that their organization was Catholic. They looked Orthodox, even used the Church Slavonic language in the Services. Nevertheless, many other people were drawn to the unique monastery in Belgium, and once they saw clearly the difference between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, they chose Orthodoxy.”
Amongst such were Bishop Jacob and Archimandrite Adrian of The Hague-possibly the first Dutchmen to become Orthodox. They were Catholic monks who began to study Orthodox literature, and discovered that the teachings of the Church Fathers had only been preserved in the Orthodox Church. They were received into the Orthodox Church in 1940 by Bishop Dionisy of the Moscow Patriarchate. Later they would become acquainted with Archbishop John (Maximovitch), who gave them much encouragement. Fr. Adrian was ordained a priest in 1952, and Fr. Jacob was consecrated a bishop in 1965. Their spiritual daughters formed the small community in The Hague, in a building which was formerly a Catholic Convent. These sisters were Dutch, and there were no Russians in the community. “Most Russians,” as Mother Maria says, “simply could not understand why Dutch people would turn to Orthodoxy. It did not make sense to them at the time.”
Mother Maria would enter that convent as a novice three years after her conversion, in 1965.
“When I was 21 years old I became a novice in the Hague Monastery. Why? This decision did not come to fruition in a day. I had a longing for monastic life, for Church Services, a growing desire to dedicate myself to a community, to a life of simplicity and prayer. Of course, I read a lot about this, but most important for me were my trips to the Lesna Mother of God Convent in France. I went there during practically every summer vacation. I attended all the Services, went to Divine Liturgy every morning, helped the sisters in the garden, in the kitchen, and in the candle-making workshop, and even learned to make prayer ropes. There I learned some Russian and Church Slavonic. There, the desire to become a nun unnoticeably ripened within me.
“Especially important for me were the final three years before entering the monastery, when I was faced with the decision about whether or not to get married. I was becoming more and more aware of the power of prayer, the meaning of life in a monastery, even the significance of the heremetic life, and thus lost my interest in “worldly life.” They say that during difficult times, people seek a worry-free existence in monasteries. I do not believe this. Monastery life is too hard to be called “worry-free.” But you can see how in our own times, there are people in Greece, Western Europe, and America who consciously leave a comfortable life in Western society for the sake of monastic asceticism and labor.”
Although Mother Maria’s search was first of all for monastic life, she also discusses peoples’ search for a spiritual father, and for a monastery:
“If a person finds what he is seeking, and his spiritual father is the Superior of a monastery, then he will likely join that monastery. A monk is under the spiritual guidance of his monastery’s spiritual father. This could be the Superior, or some one else. When the spiritual father dies, his position is usually assumed by one of his spiritual children. Monastery sisters also have a spiritual father, equal in importance to their mother Abbess. When he dies, or is for one reason or another no long able spiritually guide the sisters, the monastery must find another spiritual father who will be suitable for the traditions of that monastery.”
Having been founded in the Netherlands by the Dutch and for the Dutch, the convent in The Hague had its own “flavor,” unlike what one would find in a traditionally Orthodox country. This difference led Mother Maria to a new search-for traditional monasticism.
“As for me, I joined the monastery in The Hague because it was the only Orthodox monastery in Holland. I had only one, simple thought: if God has seen fit to call me, a Dutch girl, to monasticism, then it should be in a monastery in Holland. Looking back, I can say that this was the right decision for me, although my life went in a different direction from what I could have expected in those days. The monastic life in The Hague was very difficult for me. The idea there was to have a monastery in the center of town, so that anyone who wished could become acquainted with Orthodoxy. It was a monastery with a parish and just a few sisters, who went to work at secular jobs every day in civilian clothing, in order to earn a living. At that time several brothers also lived there, each of whom later found his own path. I remember Fr. Timothy, who reposed this year (then his name was David) having lived thirty years on Mt. Athos; also Fr. Pachomius, (also recently reposed) who founded the monastery of St. Hubert (in southern Holland); and Fr. Thomas, who founded a monastery in Belgium.
“I left The Hague monastery because it was hard for me to work during the day in the town, and be a novice only during evenings and weekends. I was not yet tonsured a nun.”
In 1973, the young Dutch novice looked to Serbia for monasticism and Orthodox spirituality, and entered Zica Monastery, near Kraljevo. St. Justin Popovich, the spiritual father of the monastery of Celije, was still alive at the time, and Mother Maria remembers his prophetic words to her when she went to receive his blessing. He told her that she had come to Serbia to learn monasticism, but would later return to Holland.
“I was in the monastery in Serbia for two years, and had to accustom myself to a very strict, traditional monastic life, in the company of sisters with whom I was very happy. This was a transitional period before my as yet unknown life in Greece. The spiritual sons of the great elder Justin Popovich, now bishops Athanasius Jeftich and Ireneus Bulovich, advised me to go to Greece in order to make my final decision.”
As a Dutch citizen, Mother Maria was not free to remain indefinitely in communist Yugoslavia, so she heeded the elders’ advice, and in 1975 went to Greece.
“In the free atmosphere of Greece, I was able to breathe more easily. Soon, I felt at home. The influence of Mt. Athos was very strong, especially that of the Kolivades, who were calling people to receive Holy Communion more often than just once a year during Great Lent, (or once a month, like the monastics in Serbia at that time). I found a living tradition there, preserved for hundreds of years in the monasteries. In a certain sense, I had to start all over from the beginning, considering the differences in tradition and mentality. I lived with the sense that I had found my place, for the rest of my life?”
Mother Maria lived in a monastery in the Peloponnesus, near Sparta, where she received the monastic tonsure. Meanwhile, she made great progress in her study of the Greek language.
In 1982, she visited Holland again for the first time in years, where her Orthodox friends persuaded her to open a convent in her native land. She returned to Greece in order to prepare herself for this undertaking. Mother Maria settled temporarily in a monastery of the diocese of Drama, in the north of Greece, and took a course at the University of Thessalonica on the translation of liturgical texts, taught by the late Professor I. Fountoulis. The time was approaching when she would be leaving Greece, her home of eleven years, in order to help nurture the growth of Orthodoxy in Western Europe.
“I, myself, feel at home in a Greek monastery, but I can understand why it would not be that way for everyone. It is no wonder that new Orthodox monasteries are being opened in the West. But it is very important for such monasteries to have connections with a country which is traditionally Orthodox, and with its monasteries.
“Throughout history there have been monastics who, having spent several years in Greece, returned to their homelands. Such Russian fathers as St. Anthony of the Kiev Caves and St. Nilus of Sora are examples. In recent times we could cite Fr. Placide, who became Orthodox on Mt. Athos and returned to France, where he started a monastery. Another example is an Australian of Greek origin, who became a nun in Greece in 1983, and ten years later was sent back to Australia, a country with several million Greek Orthodox, in order to establish a monastery for women. There is also Fr. Vasily (Grolimund), of Swiss-German origin, who founded a monastery in Germany after living for ten years on Mt. Athos.
“The history of Elder Ephraim’s American monasteries is not much different-at the request of a number of Greek Americans, he chose a group of Greek monks and nuns to organize monasteries in America according to the Athonite rule. In less than twenty years Fr. Ephraim founded eighteen monasteries, and he hopes before he dies to found two more, so that they might be equal in number to the monasteries of Mt. Athos-twenty. Most of the abbots and abbesses of these American monasteries are Greeks, or are of Greek origin; for example, Fr. Paisius, the Abbot of the monastery in Arizona, is a Greek who was born in Canada.
“In 1986, after taking counsel with monastic fathers, and of course, with the blessing of my Abbess and the local bishop, I returned to Holland. Fr. Pachomius of the Monastery of St. Elias took me in, and I lived in a garden house of his until pious people offered to buy an old farmhouse in Asten in 1988. Then in 1989 I moved there to establish a monastery.”
One of the fathers with whom Mother Maria counseled was Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) of the Monastery of St. John the Forerunner in Essex, England.
“Two years before I returned to Holland I was already preparing for my return, visiting various monasteries, including Essex. My meeting with Fr. Sophrony was very significant for me. I particularly remember his advice not to be a nun in a parish-it is better that a monastery be separate from a parish. Furthermore he advised me to look for a place with enough space for the monastery to grow. He also spoke of the idea of ‘exile.’ In spiritual life, it is important for one to leave his homeland, as did Abraham; to become a wanderer on the earth, as was Jesus Christ. Fr. Sophrony asked me if it weren’t better for me to remain a stranger in a strange land. My answer was simple and honest: ‘Father, as an Orthodox nun I am more of a stranger in Holland than in Greece!'”
The first few years of her life in Asten were mostly spent alone. It took a while for sisters to come. One of the oldest sisters of the monastery came to her from the United States, and then others of Greek origin came from England. She now has two Dutch sisters.
“There are eight sisters here, of all different nationalities, and our priest, Fr. Matthew, makes another. They all came here in different ways; each has her own history and fate. That we are all from different countries is something which makes our monastery unique. We speak various languages; have different life experiences, mentalities, and traditions, etc. Nevertheless, we are boldly trying to form a community.”
What makes this possible? “I think,” says Mother Maria, “that this is only possible when the Gospels are the foundation of our lives, when our monastic ideals are alive, and when we humbly and thankfully travel the centuries-old, holy, and blessed path of traditional monastic life. Fortunately, we are closely connected with monasteries in Greece and Cyprus, in England and in France, and we feel we are a living branch of the great tree of Orthodox monasticism.”
This synthesis is apparent in all aspects of the sisters’ daily life. Firmly planted upon Dutch soil, the monastery’s meals are according to Dutch customs, and the language used in daily life as well as in Church Services is Dutch, a large part of the liturgical texts having been translated by Fr. Adrian of The Hague. But English enters in here and there, and Greek is sometimes used. Mother Maria even gives instruction in the Greek language to the sisters, if they have the desire to learn it. The Dutch are generally very capable of mastering foreign languages, and Mother Maria is no exception. She has also been integrating more and more Byzantine music into the Church Services. And of course, on the monastery’s patronal feast day, the busloads of Greek immigrants are a cheerful reminder that the monastery is forming according to the Greek tradition.
On a daily basis, however, the regular visitors are Dutch. Bible study classes are conducted weekly for their benefit.
“Dutch people are generally attracted to Orthodoxy by its beauty-the icons, the music. They are also attracted by its stability. The Vatican II Council caused great disturbance amongst Catholics in Europe, while Orthodoxy offers an unchanging tradition.
“Protestants come looking for the Church of the first centuries of Christianity, which is, of course, Orthodoxy’s claim. Many people come through personal contacts, and through reading books. Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book, The Orthodox Church, did much for Orthodoxy in Europe, as well as the writings of Vladyka Anthony Bloom, and Fr. Sophrony. Naturally, nowadays very many people are becoming Orthodox through mixed marriages.
“Most people are converted to Orthodoxy through the Russian Church rather than the Greek, because the Greek immigrants come here with the intention of earning money and returning to Greece. The immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe come to live permanently. However, there are many cases where a Dutch person goes to Greece for a sunny vacation, sees the piety in the villages, steps into a beautiful church, then looks for that Church in Holland. Orthodoxy is definitely growing in Europe.”
The Asten convent is also visited by members of the “new” immigration from formerly communist countries, who are now becoming parishioners in local Orthodox churches, where there are many Dutch converts. The immigrants are learning to live in a very different society.
“If there is good communication, this can make for a good combination-in theory, anyway. It is a challenge-God’s challenge. As far as infrastructure and activities are concerned, however, the Coptic Church is better organized here than the Orthodox.
“It can take ten or more years for a Dutch person to become Orthodox. The priest is also cautious, testing a person’s stability and intention for about one year before baptism.”
There has been talk in the past of organizing a “Dutch Orthodox Church,” but Mother Maria believes it is too early.
“There are difficult historical considerations. What makes things complicated is that Western Europe is historically the diocese of Rome. With the return to Orthodoxy-that is, of the people, but not of the Roman Church itself-we have the uncanonical situation of more than one bishop in a city. In France and in the U.S. there are Orthodox committees (such as SCOBA), where bishops meet from all different canonical jurisdictions, and work together on issues. So in Holland, the Orthodox are at least able to work together, and a natural ‘local Orthodoxy’ can form.”
This brings us back to the little chapel on the road outside the convent, which “came by itself” in an unlikely manner. Here is how it happened.
A certain Dutch artist in the area had an original idea: art along the highway. He received permission from the highway authorities to construct some objects of art at rest stops along the main thoroughfares of Holland. In order to decide upon just what he should construct, he took a survey of the category of driver who most often passed through these parts. The main category at a certain rest stop just happened to be Russian auto dealers, and he asked them what they would like to see. The answer was – a little chapel. The artist did his research on the subject, and a wooden structure was built, a chapel dedicated to the Mother of God, Hodigitria, or “She who shows the Way,” complete with an icon on the inside, and a prayer for travelers printed on the wall in both Dutch and Church Slavonic.
Now, the highway authorities had consented to a temporary exhibit, and not a permanent fixture, so the chapel had to be removed. Fortunately, someone told them about the “Orthodox Klooster” in Asten, and they called Mother Maria. She happily consented to take the chapel.
But one has to imagine the extremely strict zoning laws and codes in the Netherlands in order to understand Mother Maria’s second thoughts on the subject. One complaint from her conservative neighbors could stifle any future building projects on the monastery’s grounds. She thought for a while, and then reached for the telephone to call the authorities and tell them that she had changed her mind. They had already set the date for the chapel’s delivery, so she had to cancel it in time?
Yes, the date was? and then she remembered. The date of arrival was the feast of the icon of the Mother of God, Hodigitria! She cancelled her call instead, not daring to obstruct God’s Providence and the good will of the Mother of God herself.
Thus, in ways outside our own efforts, only requiring our consent, can a “local Orthodoxy” form where there is neither Greek nor Jew, Barbarian nor Scythian, but Christ in all and for all (cf. Col. 3:11). “Thus,” says Mother Maria, “do we live in this corner of the secularized, Western world, preserved by the prayers of many spiritual fathers, under the protection of the Most Holy Mother of God, blessing the Lord in all the days of our life?.”