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A Prayer of the Heart

by Father Romanos V. Russo
photos: Bettmann Newsphotos


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“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.

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