by Nicholas Marinides
I arrived at Prodromos quite late, due to the need to attend a wedding back in the States. I found myself in a somewhat strange position: as a latecomer (and having only visited the monastery once before, four years ago, and then only for a short time as well) I was not able to experience the monastery life as intimately as my colleagues; but as a seasoned monastic pilgrim and as a Greek-speaker, I was able to adjust to the monastery's rhythms more easily than them. But then again, as a man and as being much more familiar with men's monasteries, the visit to a women's monastery was something relatively unfamiliar.
The differences are of course apparent in the chanting: instead of the deep full sound of an Athonite choir, "like the voice of many waters," there was the more ethereal and refined sound of women's voices. I also noticed it in the nuns' account of their reaction to last winter's fire (which I heard second-hand from some of the students, not from the nuns themselves). The event was deeply traumatic for them, and at the end of a frightening and exhausting day of fire-fighting, they gathered together to weep over the loss they had suffered. Such a catastrophe in a men's monastery would be as traumatic in its own way, but I suppose it would evoke a different kind of emotional response. Lastly, if I had been at the monastery longer I would have been able to converse more with the nuns and learn more about their monastic experience; but as a man I would have felt obliged to maintain a certain respectful distance and formality that would not be as necessary for the women in our group.
As it happened, I was able to learn something from our group conversation with Gerondissa Fevronia, where I served as translator, and by speaking with her personally about my research for a bit afterward as the group started moving back toward the library for our final talk. Here I met the refreshing simplicity of monastic wisdom, which can overcome the limits of gender. In speaking to Gerondissa, I heard the same kind of tranquil conviction and insight that I have heard in the speech of Athonite elders. And I can understand how that calm ascetical figure is a pillar of strength for the community in the difficulties of the fire and its aftermath.