By Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux
Reading on a bench under a bank of jasmine in the courtyard a few days ago, I watched one of the nuns beat mattresses while others greeted delivery men, chatted with tourists, and walked up and down the cascading stone steps with baskets of laundry. Threads of female voices filtered through the kitchen windows, mixing with the smell of simmering okra. I kept looking up from my book to talk or to check the time; after an early-morning breakfast, I was starving. I talked to the nun beating the mattresses about Texas, her birthplace, and we discussed the bow on my sun hat (the hats they wear in the garden, she explained, would never have such decoration). Except for in the kitchen after dinner, where for the past few nights I have been helping dry the scads of dishes that emerge after every meal, I felt closer to the center of the monastery’s daily life than ever before. I was content to sit, to read, and write a few pages in my journal. It was easy to belong.
Later that day, I learned that the spot where I had chosen to read had more significance than I realized. Surrounded by a confident, compelling community of women, it’s hard to imagine the monastery’s all-male past in any concrete way. Unlike the frescoes in the church, where layers of history are fully visible, I need to be given tangible reminders of what this past means, or its deeply gendered roots can easily evaporate. The bench brought me squarely back to earth, when Nikos, our program director, mentioned that in the early twentieth century, this was as far into the monastery as women could go. They could speak with the monks, and even ask them for spiritual advice, but they couldn’t enter the monastery’s holy center – they weren’t allowed near the church, or the parts of the monastery where the monks lived and prayed. In the monastery’s typikon, women, except for royalty who are permitted to enter the monastery to worship and then leave, are expressly banned. It was striking to realize that the bench where I had so comfortably sunned myself would until only recently have represented the marginality of my relationship to the monastery’s core.
This doesn’t mean, though, that women are absent from the most sacred spaces. Indeed, the bodies of a few women are permanently ensconced within the church’s walls. After clambering up to the second-floor chapel (a serious feat in a floor-length dress), I was overwhelmed by the intensely frescoed walls, depicting everything from four terrifying Blake-esque winged beings to an elaborate tableau of Christ’s birth, complete with a disconsolate Joseph in the bottom corner (more about this chapel to come). In the midst of this sensory overload, it was easy to overlook an alcove fresco of Mary and Christ, until we learned that the alcove was in fact an arcosolium, containing the bones a woman and her two daughters. The woman was Eleni, the sister of the despot from Serres who had died during the plague; her body had first been buried and then her bones exhumed and placed in the chapel’s walls. It’s hard for us to know whether Eleni was one of the few women who were allowed in the monastery during this period, but her presence was a reminder of a crucial element of what must have been a tenuous relationship: women were monastic patrons, too.
The constant presence of Mary, gazing down from domes and walls, is another complication. Can the veneration of Christ’s mother redeem a history of gendered exclusion? Or does it simply, as some Roman Catholic scholars of Mariology have pointed out, reinforce essentializing the visions of motherhood and womanhood that helped marginalize women in the first place? What does it mean for the nuns to cover their bodies, to request that we dress modestly, and to remove mirrors from the monastery? And how should I feel about the fact that women are far more welcome than men in the monastery’s kitchen?
These are hard questions, with no definite answers. And certainly, confronted with this living monastery, it’s impossible to apply theoretical principles only seem absolute on paper. Does it matter that the nuns can’t perform a liturgy without a male priest to lead them? Absolutely. Can their community still represent an empowered group of women who have performed an incredible feat in bringing this monastery back to life? Of course. Devotional women embody many contradictions that do not fit neatly into the paradigms created by mainstream, secular feminism, but that’s why communities like these can be such a crucial site for learning – they challenge the patterns and predispositions into which we fall so easily.
For now, I’m left to struggle with this fact: women’s bones were part of the walls of the monastery’s church long before their living bodies.
But today, that fact is very hard to tell.