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A Prayer of the Heart

The author visits the former Princess Ileana of Romania – known today as Mother Alexandra – Transfiguration Monastery.

“Most Holy Mother of God, Hodighitria, you who show us the way, if it is the will of your divine son that I visit with Mother Alexandra, you must find the monastery for me. I am far from home, in an unfamiliar place, tired, unable to read a map and drive at the same time. I’m in no mood to drive around asking the locals for directions to a place they probably never heard of.” That was the drift of my hot and bothered prayer one hazy August afternoon four years ago. Its details remain as fresh as this morning in my mind’s eye because of what happened next.

I had been studying at a summer institute during the week and on weekends substituting for priest friends in their parishes so they could take a few weeks of R&R. I had often wanted to visit the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pa., after reading Mother Alexandra’s books on the Jesus Prayer and the Holy Angels. “And today is the feast of the Transfiguration, the monastery’s throne feast, August 6th! What are my chances of finding such a spiritual oasis in the midst of this desert?” (Citizens of the God-protected state of Pennsylvania, forgive me!)

At that moment I looked up, slammed on the brakes and backed up a few feet to reread with incredulous eyes (“Unless I see the place of the wounds…”) the sign: Holy Transfiguration Monastery. I stopped the car and wept silently for joy. But here I was, dressed in a T-shirt and Bermuda shorts. Clumsily I changed into regulation togs and drove up the long drive to a clearing at the top of the hill, commanding a serene view of the surrounding countryside. The region lost its desert nature.

I got out of my car and before I could introduce myself, a young nun whisked me away to an arbor where the community and guests were concluding their evening meal. Sister insisted that I heap a plate with all manner of homey, good things. I was sure they had mistaken me for some expected guest. When I asked hesitatingly whether Mother was in residence, she assured me, “You shall sit next to her while you have your supper.”

She escorted me to a rough-hewn picnic table and introduced me to Mother Alexandra. A diminutive lady with a round, joy-filled face looked up and welcomed me as she would a long-awaited friend. “There will be time to talk later. First, eat.”

She served me herself. When dessert arrived – a large cylinder of ice cream – I noticed Mother holding a large, heavy silver spoon surmounted by a crowned letter “M.” “Is that…” Before I could finish, she replied, “Yes. It is the only heirloom I have from my mother, Queen Marie.” The beatific, octogenarian nun who had been serving me at table was none other than the former Princess Ileana of Romania.

After supper she asked leave to rest briefly before our promised talk, but not before entrusting me to the gentle sister in charge of guests. I wanted to make an offering to the community for its exquisite kindness but hesitated for fear of giving offense; the monastic rule of hospitality was not to be compromised. But I did buy some of the handicrafts wrought by the nuns for their support, two beautifully hand-tied komvoschinia, or prayer ropes.

These are the Eastern antecedent of the Western rosary. Unlike the rosary, the chotki (to give them their Slavic name) are not used as a devotion to the Mother of God but rather to keep count of the number of Jesus Prayers said by a monastic or lay person. Pious Muslims use a 33-bead masbaha to meditate on the 99 names of God revealed to them in the Quran. Visitors to the Middle East often notice something like them used as “worry beads.” Devout Christians use prayer ropes with 33 or 100 knots; monastics sometimes use a 300-knot rope.

The Eastern monks, especially those known as hesychasts (from the Greek word for quiet contemplation), were preoccupied with St. Paul’s injunction in the Epistle to the Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing.” They taught that one could pray always by coordinating the repetition of the name of Jesus with one’s breathing. The name of Jesus enshrined in the brief prayer became rooted in the monk’s heart. For this reason the Jesus Prayer became known as the Prayer of the Heart.

With two beautiful prayer ropes, one with green dividing beads and the other with scarlet dividers and fringes, I was escorted into Mother’s pokoi, or sitting room. “I see you have bought two of my prayer ropes,” Mother Alexandra observed. “Yours, Mother?” I was curious. “Yes, those are my knots. I recognize my work,” she replied with what in a worldly craftsman might have been taken for pride. I asked if we could spend some moments together in prayer. I handed Mother one of the komvoschinia and held the other myself. I watched Mother as her thumb and index finger deftly played the melody of the Jesus Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ
Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner

The whole dynamic of the Christian life is contained in the 15 syllables of this prayer. It begins with its focus clearly centered on God. “Lord” is a title of divinity The liturgy proclaims, “One is holy, one is the Lord: Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father. Amen.” Jesus’s name means “savior.” By calling on this name we proclaim our dependence on him, our need for salvation that comes only through his life-giving death and resurrection. Our connection to him is mercy, only mercy.

The monastic fathers, especially the hesychasts, taught that one could achieve a mystical union with God through the interiorized repetition of the Jesus Prayer. One might even behold with human eyes the Uncreated Light of Thabor, the refulgence of the divine energies. Though God in his essence is incommunicable to any outside the Trinity, he shares his nature with his creatures by his energies. It was this very uncreated light that the apostles beheld at the Transfiguration on Thabor.

Though I can’t claim to have had a Thabor-like vision, I did feel a warmth suffuse my entire being as I sat next to a living hesychast saint, praying the Jesus Prayer at the Monastery of the Transfiguration on its very feast day. During our moments of prayer together, I switchedprayer robes with Mother so that she not only made both but had prayed with both. Mother smiled an indulgent smile. I think she knew I wanted them as relics, but she was so self-effacing; she offered no resistance. She humored my innocent ruse. After a few brief moments rapt in prayer we spoke simply and without pretense of the power of the Jesus Prayer. We took our leave with the hope of seeing each other again.

I only met Mother one other time a few years later. She recalled our meeting and our prayer together. Last year, after returning to Romania and praying at the chapel erected on the site of her parents’ grave, she reposed in the Lord.

Those prayer ropes are my most cherished possessions. I wish to be buried with one of them. The other accompanies me on the way. Have mercy on the sinful priest Romanos at the intercession of our holy Mother Alexandra. Amen.

Father Romanos teaches Latin and classical Greek and serves the Melkite-Greek Catholic community of Brooklyn.

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